City/Suburban Hoops Report Coach of the Year: Evanston’s Mike Ellis

Evanston coach Mike Ellis tries to get his team back in the game against Morgan Park. Worsom Robinson/ For the Sun-Times.

(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

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10 comments

  • Donmecca

    I’m black and I played for one of the white coaches on this list and you are not going to tell me or have explained to me, why only two black coaches have won coach of the year in 23 years, of high school basketball in Illinois, and just because Joe and Mike have the state basketball on lock means nothing , every year there is a black coach deserving of this award, Evanston and there coach have one of the best basketball facilities in the state and he won this year cause he had 3 jr guards that have been on varsity since they were freshman and were battle tested for two yrs on great teams,so i don’t want to here about what a great job he did with good players, explain to me why only 2 blacks have won this award in 23 years,that’s what i want to no.

  • Marty M

    It’s one publication’s pick for coach of the year. I don’t see any other outlets doing this for the Chicago area so having someone else do it isn’t an option.

    If you look at coaches of the year or managers of the year in all sports, the honor typically goes to those who got teams to overachieve and do the unexpected. Not saying that’s the right way – but that’s typically how it works.

    There are picks on here I wouldn’t agree with, either. For example, in 2001 for me it would have been Bob Williams of Schaumburg because they won a state title very few expected over Thornwood and Eddy Curry and beat Lyons in the semifinals. But Conte Stamas was also a heck of a coach and did great things with his team. Certainly a valid argument could be made for the phenomenal things Lou Adams has done at Orr. Same with Robert Smith through the years at Simeon, Nick Irvin at Morgan Park, Tyrone Slaughter at Whitney Young and others in the Public League.

    Mike Ellis obviously did a great job this year and Joe put out all of the reasons why. High school basketball fans in the Chicago area are fortunate, at a time when there are fewer and fewer options to get strong coverage of high school basketball in the Chicago area and Illinois, to have guys like Joe and Michael O’Brien doing the work they do. There is nothing wrong to disagree with this year’s choice or others. But I’ve never seen or heard any reason to believe race as a factor in Joe’s selections or basketball coverage.

  • Duke Carnoustie

    Coach Ellis is excellent and was absolutely fantastic this year given what my Wildkits lost. He is a worthy choice for coach of the year.

    When you consider that Orr is the No.1 team and you see what Louis Adams does from the illuminating documentary ‘Shot in the Dark’ it is hard not to see this man not get his due. The excellent film shows a side of Chicago you don’t normally see and Adams is the most interesting person in it. That movie was made by some ETHS graduates as well and the quality shines through.

    The Duke says co-coach of the year goes to Louis Adams and Mike Ellis!

  • CP3

    With 3 freshmen playing significant roles and 4 in all on the team, Coach Ellis did a helluva job of getting them to buy to their roles collectively. Argument for Lou Adams is accurate too. Thought he should have won it last year. Coach Slaughter NEVER having won the award is……mind boggling. Not once, with 3 state championships and a couple 2nd place finishes.

  • Norm

    Well deserved!! It was a special season that few thought possible.

  • Donmecca

    Since 1996 only one public league coach ,has been coach of the year ,Lou Adams ,Nick Irving, Ty Slaughter and Rob Smith have more state championships than all those coach of the year coaches put together,if you don’t see a problem with that, then someone else needs to vote or pick the coach of the year. P.S only two black coaches won in 23 years ,looks like racism to me.

    • Mike Dvis

      Have the same sentiment. Lou Adams definitely should have won this award but welcome to America.

    • B max

      Its appalling. Where was Orr ten years ago? Lou Adams turned that program from a laughing stock school with no uniforms to a powerhouse being showcased on FOX Sports. Lou Adams should be COY

    • tsmith

      I don’ t think that it is intentionally racist, but definitely cultural incompetence and oblivious to the dynamics of coaching CPS Boy’s BBall. A coach-swap would quickly cure that germ of ignorance.

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