The Southwest Prairie Conference needed Joliet basketball.
When Joliet Central and Joliet West joined the league two years ago, the addition brought more basketball credibility and history to a conference lacking a basketball identity.
Both schools made their presence felt immediately. Joliet West ran the table in conference play two years ago and Joliet Central captured a league title last year with a 13-1 record.
Was there some animosity from the conference holdovers when the new kids on the block took titles in their first two years? Hardly.
“Joliet is a basketball town,” says Oswego coach Chad Pohlmann, who spent five years at Lincoln-Way Central as an assistant coach competing against Joliet. “Joliet brings a toughness to the league and also a different style.”
The conference has produced a ranked team here, a sleeper there and a few individual stars over the years. But gaining basketball respect has been a burden, whether it be earning headlines throughout the season or high seeds in holiday tournaments in December or sectionals in March.
Joilet West coach Nick DiForti saw it firsthand while he was the head coach in the Southwest Prairie at Plainfield North, particularly the year his team finished 26-5 in 2008-2009.
“We were like 21-4 at the time of the sectional seeding and we get the No. 5 seed,” says DiForti, who left Plainfield North for Joliet West in 2013. “That shows you a little bit there of where our league was in terms of the respect it was getting.”
But Joliet Central and Joliet West was a shot of caffeine to the league. Joliet Central has won back-to-back regional titles. Joliet West has won two regionals in the past three years, including a sectional championship in 2016.
When the two Joliet schools combined athletic programs as Joliet Twp. from 1993 to 2010, the basketball program won 10 regional titles and reached the state finals three times, finishing fourth in 1995.
That doesn’t even dip into the tradition-rich days of the mid-1930s when Joliet made three trips to state, winning a 1937 state title, or the historic gym Joliet Central plays in today.
Current Plainfield North coach Bob Krahulik agrees the league’s reputation has been enhanced with the arrival of the two Joliet schools.
“I think it gives our conference more credibility,” says Krahulik. “Adding the Joliets has made this a better basketball conference with great coaches and a different style of play.”
Aside from Oswego’s run as a Class 3A school in 2009 and 2010 –– the Panthers won back-to-back sectional titles, including a Class 3A state runner-up finish in 2009 –– there has been next to nothing when it comes to postseason success in the league.
There isn’t a team in the league outside of Joliet and Oswego with a sectional championship. Romeoville won a sectional championship in 1986 but that entire season was ultimately forfeited.
You can count on one hand the combined number of regional titles Plainfield East, Plainfield Central, Plainfield South, Plainfield North, Oswego East, Romeoville and Minooka have won in the past 25 years.
“I think there are still a lot of teams in the conference with something to prove,” says DiForti. “But the Joliet name helps and carries itself, so I do think it’s very good for the league.”
No one can disagree with that.
“Having them in the league gives you an expectation that if you are going to win the league, it’s probably going to go through Joliet,” says Pohlmann.
Adds Krahulik, “It has made the other teams in the league work harder and adapt to a different style of play.”
Plainfield East coach Mike Fowler has a respect for both programs and the men who lead them.
“The addition of the Joliet schools has definitely increased the level of competition,” says Fowler. “Not only on the court, but with coach [Larry] Thompson and coach [Nick] DiForti. Both coaches run great programs, and it’s raised the expectations of all the teams in the conference. There is a culture of winning basketball they have at both schools.”
And next season the winning culture in the league will be amped up even more with the addition of perennial power West Aurora. The tradition-rich basketball program will join the conference, along with Yorkville, for the 2019-2020 season.
But this is the season where everyone should get a crack at the two Joliet schools and wrestle back that conference title. There is a bit of an uncertainty around both Joliet programs. The gap between the Joliet teams and the rest of the conference pack has closed.
While talented, Joliet West is very young and probably a year away from being back in any type of favorite role. Joliet Central will be solid but lost its top player, 6-5 junior Kee Hargrow, who transferred to Hyde Park.
“I think the league this year will be very strong, probably very underrated around the Chicago area,” says Krahulik. “The conference is deep.”
Oswego East, led by three returning starters, including star guard Ray J Dennis, will be favored. But a much-improved Oswego team, Plainfield North, Plainfield East and Romeoville will be beating up on one another all winter.
The league schedule features only one game between each school, so each loss can greatly impact the nine-game slate each team will face in the Southwest Prairie.
“It will be interesting to see how many losses the conference champ will have,” says Pohlman of the upcoming season. “Since Joliet arrived the league is more balanced and deeper than it’s been.”
Want to hear all about the Sun-Times preseason Super 25 basketball rankings? Michael O’Brien and Joe Henricksen go in-depth on all 25 teams in the latest episode of No Shot Clock, the Chicago high school basketball podcast. LISTEN HERE.Tags: Joliet Central, Joliet West, On Instagram, Oswego, Oswego East, Plainfield North