(As Editor/Publisher of the City/Suburban Hoops Report, a high school basketball publication for two decades and a college basketball recruiting service, I have awarded a Coach of the Year in Illinois for the past 23 years. The following is the 24th recipient of the award.)
When this season began the talk in the city centered on a number of teams.
No. 1 Young welcomed Fenwick star transfer DJ Steward to the mix. The defending state champs, Morgan Park, were once again the early favorites in Class 3A with the return of Adam Miller. Evanston was loaded and Bloom was expected to take the next step.
Coach Mike Oliver’s Curie team was a bit of an afterthought. Sure, the Condors were ranked among the top 10 teams when the season began, no one expected this:
• 32-2 record
• Third-place finish in Class 4A
• Pontiac Holiday Tournament champs
• Red-South/Central champs
• Public League champs
The win total was accentuated by all the teams Curie manhandled for four months.
That list included the eventual Class 3A and 2A state champs, East St. Louis and Orr (twice). Curie beat Morgan Park twice, including once on the road by 32 points. The Condors beat Simeon three times. They knocked off Young, Bogan, New Trier and Bloom.
They went out of state for wins, beating 24-win Raleigh-Egypt out of Memphis, a top 10 team in Tennessee, and Eduprize, a 26-1 team ranked in the top five in Arizona.
The lone regular-season loss came by just six points to one of the top teams in the country and No. 2 team in California, Salesian College Prep (31-1).
Even Oliver wasn’t sure what to expect when the season began.
“I really wasn’t sure about this team when the season started,” said Oliver, whose roster isn’t loaded with future Division I players. “There were a lot of questions. I certainly didn’t expect the record we had.”
But Oliver rallied a group and built something that was unlike any of his past teams that enjoyed success. This team was different. It was different from Curie’s 2015-16 state championship team or the extremely talented team of 2013-14, led by Cliff Alexander, that went off the rails late in the season due to off-the-court issues.
This Curie team had its own unique DNA, with an old school approach and mind-set. Toughness. Togetherness. Sharing the ball. Consistency. Playing within themselves. All the coach-speak that sometimes is taken for granted.
But that’s the point –– all of those team intangibles just don’t happen; Oliver was instrumental in getting everyone on the same page and getting them to believe what he was preaching.
Here is Mike Oliver in his own words following a remarkable season.
On when he began to believe this team had something special going.
Early in the year we had that stretch where we had a big comeback against East St. Louis, then beat Simeon and went to Morgan Park and beat them by 30. We didn’t know at the time East St. Louis was going to be a state champion. But that stretch of games had us believing. Then we won at Pontiac, where we beat New Trier and Bloom, so by then we knew we had something special.
On the impact of senior leadership.
We put a lot of leadership and responsibility on Trevon [Hamilton] and DaJuan [Gordon]. They were leaders, unselfish leaders. They were the guys everyone believes in, who they all trust and respect. DaJuan could have easily gone out and scored 25-plus a game. But he did it within the structure of the team.
On his team’s defense and the addition of transfer Damari Nixon.
But they bought into defense. It was probably the best defensive team I’ve had. They took pride in their defense. Different players wanted to lead the team in charges, deflections and steals. But when Damari Nixon came to Curie we had five guys who could score, five guys who could just go.
On what it was like to coach this team.
Fun team to coach, fun team to be around. They challenged each other. We didn’t have to get on them. They would get on each other. This whole group was all about team. How close this team became and how they have bought into being one unit was the biggest surprise. The way they allowed us to coach them is what I will remember most and what I’m most proud of with this team.
The difference at Curie compared to other Public League powerhouses.
We have kids that really want to be at Curie. We don’t have some of the same advantages as some of the other top city powers. We don’t get the four and five star kids. We get the second tier kids. But they really want to be at Curie, and they want to do it the Curie way. We build it from the ground up. Our sophomore groups have played in three straight city championships.
City/Suburban Hoops Report’s Coach of the Year Award Winners
2019: Mike Oliver, Curie
2018: Mike Ellis, Evanston
2017: Mike Healy, Wheaton South
2016: Gene Heidkamp, Benet
2015: Phil Ralston, Geneva
2014: Tom Livatino, Loyola
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