(As Editor/Publisher of the City/Suburban Hoops Report, a high school basketball publication for nearly two decades and a recruiting service, I have awarded a Player of the Year in Illinois for the past 22 years. The following is the 23rd recipient of the award.)
When Mike Ellis took over the Evanston program in 2010, the former Peoria Richwoods coach had visions of taking the Wildkits to Peoria.
And why wouldn’t he?
Ellis had guided two of his Richwoods teams to the State Finals in Carver Arena, finishing second in the state in both 2006 and 2010, and was headed to one of the tradition-rich programs in the Chicago area. This is an Evanston community known for churning out young talent, even if some of it always didn’t stay to play for Evanston Township High School.
After winning four regional titles, including a sectional championship in 2012, the table was set last season.
Ellis had a senior-dominated team he had groomed for several years, led by Purdue recruit, four-year varsity player and all-stater Nojel Eastern. The Wildkits were a team that was ranked in everyone’s preseason top 10 and had the expectation it would get downstate and compete for a state championship.
Evanston lived up to the hype, playing a rugged schedule, winning 28 games and a sectional title. But the Wildkits fell to eventual state champ Whitney Young in the super-sectional.
“We had a talented senior group last year with size, versatility, Division I players, and it was a spectacular season,” Ellis said. “But when it was over you did feel like we missed out on a great opportunity. You did feel like you missed your chance.”
Eastern headed off to Purdue and is playing in the NCAA Tournament and Elyjah Williams played 15 minutes a game for Fairleigh Dickinson this past season. A group of seasoned seniors, including veteran Chris Hamil, graduated and took roughly 85 percent of the team’s offense with them.
Thus, the expectations for the 2017-2018 season were toned down. Evanston was picked to finish fourth in the Central Suburban League South, behind Niles North, Maine South and rival New Trier.
“It was hard to make that a rallying cry, because it was probably accurate,” Ellis said of the modest preseason prognostications for his team.
Ellis did see some toughness and competitiveness from his team in the summer. He saw the improvement from his junior class. But added, “you never know what you’re going to get from freshmen.” And although talented and heralded, Evanston would need its freshmen to play significant roles.
Evanston started well and came out of December with a 11-3 record. But it was a midseason road win in January that elevated the coach’s hopes for the season.
“The win at New Trier raised the bar for our own expectations,” said Ellis, “And I think our players would agree with that if you were to ask them. If you were there and witnessed the plays they made down the stretch, you could see the potential of what maybe this team could do.”
So with just one senior starter –– 6-7 Matt Hall who averaged four points and four rebounds a game –– Evanston went on to earn the No. 1 sectional seed and tie New Trier for the top spot in the Central Suburban League South.
The Wildkits ramped up things defensively and improved as the season progressed. His players clearly took on their roles and played for one another rather than seeking individual praise. Ellis credits the mental approach of his players and his coaching staff for how far his team came in such a short time.
“These kids didn’t listen to the outside noise, and that’s what was so impressive about them,” says Ellis. “They didn’t listen to the doubters. They also left their personal agendas outside of the gym and showed such maturity at an early stage of their high school career.
“I have one of the best coaching staffs in the state as far as caring for kids, providing stability and helping them grow. The basketball will take care of itself.”
Few teams could lose a multi-dimensional player like Eastern –– and such a veteran group that went with him –– and experience the type of season the Wildkits just completed. Ellis orchestrated arguably his best coaching performances of his highly-successful career, which now includes taking two different programs to the state semifinals.
But the page now turns for Ellis and his Wildkits as he ventures into a new territory going forward with this particular group of players.
Ellis took a group of no-namers with little to no experience on a four-month joy ride that ended in Peoria. Now Ellis has a whole new set of challenges ahead.
With so many players returning from a 27-win team that finished third in the state, how does Ellis keep success from spoiling everything? This won’t all be about game strategy, because success and attention can be intoxicating. Can Ellis keep all these players on the same page? Will they work to get better every day?
With the talent returning and the experience of the March run in their back pocket –– and the bitter taste of falling just short in Peoria –– you better believe the 2017-2018 City/Suburban Hoops Report Coach of the Year will willingly take on those challenges.
City/Suburban Hoops Report’s Coach of the Year Award Winners
2018: Mike Ellis, Evanston
2017: Mike Healy, Wheaton South
2016: Gene Heidkamp, Benet
2015: Phil Ralston, Geneva
2014: Tom Livatino, Loyola Academy
2013: Mike Taylor, Marian Catholic
2012: Robert Smith, Simeon
2011: Scott Miller, Glenbard East
2010: Gene Heidkamp, Benet
2009: Ron Ashlaw, Waukegan
2008: John Chappetto, Richards
2007: Pat Ambrose, Stevenson
2006: Gordie Kerkman, West Aurora
2005: David Weber, Glenbrook North
2004: Roy Condotti, Homewood-Flossmoor
2003: Bob Curran, Thornwood
2002: Rick Malnati, New Trier
2001: Conte Stamas, Lyons Twp.
2000: Dave Lohrke, Glenbard South
1999: Gene Pingatore, St. Joseph
1998: Mark Lindo, Naperville North
1997: Gordie Kerkman, West Aurora
1996: Rocky Hill, Thornton