Not many high school athletes have their own cheering section.
But Grayslake North forward Aidan Einloth has a dedicated group of friends who come to most of his games. They probably figure he could really use the support.
Einloth is a freshman. Just last year, he was navigating through the awkward middle school years and playing 8th grade feeder basketball with his fellow tweens.
Now, he's starting on varsity for a 5-3 team that is veteran-heavy, but better because he's in the lineup. He got his first start in the third game of the season, after being one of the first players off the bench before that.
No freshman in Grayslake North history has ever spent the entire season on the varsity, let alone started a majority of the games as well.
Einloth will be the first.
"It makes me feel really good that the other freshmen come out and watch my games," said Einloth, whose former teammates show up despite the fact that they have to make a special trip to the high school for varsity games since the freshman team usually plays at different times and venues. "They've been really encouraging and it's nice to know that this whole thing with me doesn't change anything with our friendships."
Speaking of change, Einloth was never expecting such a major change of course in his basketball career.
He was one of the top scorers for his 8th grade feeder team, but certainly didn't see that as an express ticket to varsity basketball. He was prepared to go through the usual channels.
"This has been surreal because a year ago, I never would have seen myself playing varsity basketball this year," Einloth said. "I never even gave it a thought."
But Einloth wound up giving everyone on the Grayslake North coaching staff some serious food for thought during the summer when he fit right in with the older players in scrimmages and games.
A big player with guard skills, the 6-foot-3 Einloth is a tough match-up. He can shoot from long range, drive to the basket and defend the perimeter, but he also has enough size to rebound and play post defense.
"The way Aidan can do so many things so well, it was just obvious that he was a varsity (caliber) basketball player," Grayslake North coach Todd Grunloh said. "At the end of the summer, we were short on numbers for some varsity games and Aidan was already playing up with the sophomores by then, so we called him on up to varsity to play with us and he was solid.
"It's not like he was doing anything flashy, he just did everything well. He was rebounding, he was taking good shots. I mean, I don't think I've ever seen him take a bad shot. And his assist to-turnover-ratio was like 2-to-1. There were times in those games at the end of the summer where it was hard to take him off the floor."
Not much has changed since then. If anything, Einloth is getting even more minutes because his confidence has gone through the roof.
He's averaging about 6 points per game and is among the team's top rebounders and playmakers with about 4 rebounds and 4 assists per game.
"I think it's helped me a lot that the coaches believe in me. They let me play the way I want to play and if I make a mistake, they don't make me feel like it's going to affect my playing time," Einloth said. "The guys are really good, too. At first that surprised me because I'm just a freshman. I thought it would be tough for me to fit in with them. But now that I've gotten to know these guys, I'm not surprised at all that they've made it easy for me because they're really nice kids and they're always trying to help me and give me advice."
Sometimes, the veterans also like to give Einloth a good-natured poke in the ribs. When he misses a layup or makes a silly mistake, they'll yell, 'Freshman!'
Luckily for him, though, that's been the worst of it. He hasn't gotten stuck carrying the ball bag or the dirty uniforms like many younger players do.
Perhaps it's because Einloth has made too many fans amongst his older teammates, such as team leader AJ Fish. The senior guard can relate to Einloth. He played on the varsity as a freshman in short stretches. He spent most of that season with the sophomore team but made significant contributions when he was brought up for the state tournament.
"AJ said to us coaches one time that Aidan is the best freshman Grayslake North has ever had in the basketball program," Grunloh said. "And we joked with him and said, 'Even better than you, AJ?' He said, 'A lot better.'"
Einloth says there's nothing magical about his fast rise to the top. Playing year-round is his best explanation. He played not only feeder basketball last year, he also played for his middle school team as well as an AAU team.
It also helps that Einloth catches on quickly. A straight-A student in all honors classes, Einloth is clearly smart on the court.
"I've played a lot of basketball," Einloth said. "In some ways, I felt nervous coming into the season being a freshman. But in other ways, I felt pretty comfortable because I've worked really hard on my skills. The guys were able to see pretty quickly that I could play with them and I think they respect that."