NORTH SUBURBAN LAKE
Lake Zurich Bears
Coach: Billy Pitcher, 4th season
Last year: 15-16
Last year's tournament: Lost in the Lake Zurich regional semifinal to Mundelein, 66-46.
Key players lost: G Ryan Roach, G John Repplinger
Key players returning: G Brad Kruse, sr., G Mike Travlos, jr., F Will McClaughry, G Jack O'Neill, jr., G Matt Moon, sr., F Corey Helgeson, sr., F Jeff Zahery, sr., C Ryan Richman, sr., G Dave Brown, sr.
Top newcomers: C Zach Wallace, jr., C Matt Bauman, sr.
Outlook: The Bears could be on the verge of another big jump. Their win total skyrocketed over the last two years, with back-to-back 15-win seasons. Those came after a 7-win season and a 3-win season the previous two years. Now, fourth-year coach Billy Pitcher is as optimistic as ever. "With good size and good guard play, this is the most talented and experienced group in my four years," Pitcher said. "This is a hungry group and we have high expectations for them." Guards Brad Kruse and Mike Travlos each averaged around 10 points per game last season and were among the team's 3-point shooting leaders. Travlos nailed 41 three-pointers and Kruse had 30. Both return with loads of off-season experience on the AAU circuit. Pitcher says Kruse and Travlos are also getting all kinds of attention from recruiters, from Division III, all the way up to Division I. "Brad is a complete player," Pitcher said of Kruse. "He's our best rebounder and defender, he knows all the angles, takes smart shots, knows when and how to jump in the passing lanes and plays to exhaustion." Inside, the Bears boast quite a bit of height in returning 6-foot-6 starting forward Will McClaughry (6 ppg, 5.5 rpg), veteran Ryan Richman (6-foot-5) and newcomers Zach Wallace (6-foot-8) and Matt Bauman (6-foot-4). Wallace has a high ceiling, in only his third year of basketball. All-conference football player Matt Moon will get a late start because the Bears are still in the football playoffs. But he will be counted on heavily when he gets his basketball legs back. "He can really be our X-factor," Pitcher said of Moon. "He's a great athlete and defender and has a nose for the ball. He was really effective this summer at point guard." Meanwhile, veterans Jack O'Neill and Corey Helgeson have made huge strides since last season and should get major minutes.
Opener: Monday vs. Chicago King at West Chicago (6:30 p.m.)
Coach: Scott Bogumil, 10th season
Last year: 6-21 (2-10 NSC Lake)
Last year's tournament: Lost in the Lake Zurich regional quarterfinal to Lake Zurich, 72-65.
Key players lost: F Jack Diechl
Key players returning: G Jack Lipp, sr., C Joe Borcia, jr., F John Vernasco, sr., G Matt Reed, sr., F Anthony Monken, sr., Brian Scanlan, sr.
Top newcomers: F James Mobley, soph., G Connor Petersen, jr., G Cam Chen, soph., F Ben Kimpler, soph.
Outlook: There was no taking it easy this past summer for Libertyville. "We really challenged ourselves this summer, playing a most competitive schedule and we fared quite well," said Libertyville coach Scott Bogumil, who won't let his guys off easy during the upcoming season either. "We have upgraded our schedule and will play at Proviso West at Christmas, which should be a great experience for our kids." The Wildcats are hoping they'll get the chance to navigate their tougher schedule with a healthy and fully intact roster. Last season, multiple injuries decimated Libertyville. "Being healthy is a major factor with us," Bogumil said. "Our season a year ago was very trying to gain any consistency." Senior guard Jack Lipp was the most consistent last season. He averaged 14 points per game. He'll team up with center Joe Borcia (9 ppg, 7 rpg last season) to give the Wildcats a solid inside-outside threat. Also back are forwards John Vernasco and Anthony Monken, guard Matt Reed and Brian Scanlan. "With a core group of players coming back, we feel we have a lot of experience and some talent to be very competitive in the North Suburban Conference," Bogumil said. The Wildcats will also get a boost from 6-foot-3 forward James Mobley, a transfer from Round Lake. The sophomore averaged double-figures last season in his rookie campaign. Sophomore Ben Kimpler, a 6-foot-6 sophomore, will also be a new face to keep an eye on.
Opener: Monday vs. Maine West (5 p.m.)
Coach: Corey Knigge, 1st season
Last year: 18-14 (5-7 NSC Lake)
Last year's tournament: Lost in the Waukegan sectional semifinal to Stevenson, 78-68.
Key players lost: G Robert Knar, F Sean O'Brien, F Cliff Dunigan, F Chino Ebube, G Quinn Pokora, G Dylan Delaquila
Key players returning: G Nate Williams, sr.
Top newcomers: G Pierre Bailey, soph., F Isaiah Woolford, soph.
Outlook: The season hasn't even started yet, but Mundelein has already been tested. Recently, new head coach Corey Knigge welcomed his first child into the world, a baby boy named Conner. While he was out for a few days, Knigge left his new assistant coach, former Warren star Ceola Clark, in charge. Clark just played his last season at Western Illinois last year. "I was a little worried about being gone for a day or two, but really knew (the guys) would work hard and based on Ceola's report, they did," Knigge said. "I think that's a building block for an inexperienced team. When the new head coach is gone and the first-year assistant is running practice, it says a lot that they would work hard and not take advantage of the situation." Knigge, a longtime assistant at Mundelein under former head coach Dick Knar, who is now the athletic director at Grant, will be looking for other small victories early on in this rebuilding season. The Mustangs lost six seniors from last year's 18-win team, all of whom are playing in college and two of whom went Division I. Guard Robert Knar, who scored more than 2,000 points in his career at Mundelein, is at Northern Iowa and forward Sean O'Brien is at Southern Illinois. "We'll be picked at the bottom of the conference," Knigge said. "Obviously graduating six players who were either starters or heavy-minute guys, we have some deficiencies in experience. I think if we work hard and continue to build that we could surprise some people this year." Senior guard Nate Williams won't be able to sneak up on anyone. He got major minutes last year and will again handle the point for the Mustangs. "Nate is really the only guy coming back who got significant minutes," Knigge said. "We're going to need to build as we go and be patient with guys who just don't have a lot of experience at the varsity level." Two of Mundelein's most promising newcomers are sophomores Pierre Bailey and Isaiah Woolford.
Opener: Monday vs. Lake Forest Academy at Mundelein Thanksgiving Tournament (7 p.m.)
Coach: Pat Ambrose, 15th season
Last year: 29-4 (12-2 NSC Lake)
Last year's tournament: Lost in the Class 4A state championship game to Simeon, 58-40.
Key players lost: G Andy Stempel (Illinois Wesleyan), G Justin Berkson, G Riley House, F Jack Duffy
Key players returning: G Jalen Brunson, jr., F Matt Morrissey, sr., F Connor Cashaw, jr., G Cameron Green, jr., G Sam Pantich, sr., F Josias Sanon, sr., G Matt Johnson, jr., F Parker Nichols, jr.
Top newcomers: G/F Brandon Hwang, jr., G Tom Imus, jr., F Ryan Rosenbaum, jr.
Outlook: Expectations are high for the Patriots, who return nearly everyone from a team that won 29 games last season and finished as the state runner-up in Class 4A. "(Going back downstate) isn't something we're working on now. We're just trying to get better every day right now," Stevenson coach Pat Ambrose said. "But could we get downstate again? Yeah. This is a very talented team, and I think we're a tad more athletic, a tad more experienced and probably a tad deeper this season. We have only three seniors on the roster and you would think that we're a young team But we have quite a few juniors who got a lot of experience last year as sophomores." One of those experienced juniors is guard Jalen Brunson, one of the most highly sought-after recruits in the nation. He led Stevenson in scoring last season at 21.6 points per game. He was also tops in 3-pointers with 50 and in assists (3.8 apg) and steals (2.3 spg). "Jalen's gotten even better," Ambrose said. "He's stronger, more vocal. He's directed and focused. He's two steps better across the board in everything. He's also cognizant about the attention on him and that there are going to be people out there who will try to get in his head. But he's ready for that. He's a really mature and focused kid." The good news for Brunson is that the burden to carry the team doesn't rest fully on his shoulders. He's got plenty of help, thanks in large part to the return of fellow juniors Connor Cashaw and Cameron Green as well as senior Matt Morrissey. Cashaw, a 6-foot-3 guard who can mix it up inside, averaged 16 points a game last season and led the Patriots in rebounding with 7 rebounds per game. "Connor is such a dynamic player. He's just so good and he's gotten stronger and taller and he's a better passer and ball-handler," Ambrose said. "On any other team, he would be a superstar that you could build your team around…and he'll still go down as one of the finest players in Stevenson history," Ambrose said. "But it just so happens that he plays alongside a guy like Jalen Brunson. People might not think Connor stands out as "the man," but he sure could be that player for us. It's going to be a challenge for me to know who to go with when we need a bucket in a tough situation or when we need someone to come up with a defensive stop against the other team's best player. Both (Brunson and Cashaw) can do that for us. I guess it's a nice quandary to be in." Losing guard Andy Stempel, who is now playing at Illinois Wesleyan, will be a bit of a problem for the Patriots, but Ambrose is excited about newcomers Brandon Hwang, Tom Imus and Ryan Rosenbaum. "There will be expectations and pressure and standards and goals, but we're just trying to be our own team this year and we're just really working on our chemistry," Ambrose said. "We're working on that more than anything, on making those connections and focusing on how we can help each other be better players and better teammates."
Opener: Monday vs. Grayslake Central at Buffalo Grove Thanksgiving tournament (6 p.m.)
Warren Blue Devils
Coach: Ryan Webber, 2nd season
Last year: 17-12 (6-6 NSC Lake)
Last year's tournament: Lost in the Warren regional final to St. Viator, 63-53.
Key players lost: G Aarias Austin (Des Moines Area Community College), G Arthell Rosquist, F Dre Hill, Derek Mason
Key players returning: G Adrian Deere, sr., G James Betori, sr., G Eric Gillispie, sr.
Top newcomers: F Greg Swain, sr., G/F Jovan Jokic, jr., G Dominic Cuevas, jr., F Caleb Reames, jr., G Sam Schroeder, sr.
Outlook: For someone who is always talking about operating at the fastest pace possible, Warren coach Ryan Webber is especially thrilled about where his team is right now. "We're light years ahead of where we were last season at this time," said Webber, who was just beginning to settle into his first season last year. "In terms of what the kids know, the details of our offense and our defense, we're right there. Last year, it just felt like we never had enough time to take it all in. Just when we'd take a step forward, we'd take two steps back because we were still learning and it was the newness factor. We're not really dealing with that anymore." The Blue Devils haven't changed their emphasis on an up-tempo offense and defense. "We want to always do things at a quick pace," Webber said. "Everything we do at practice is at a fast pace. We even time out drills. The one thing you battle with something like this is human nature. Everyone looks for the time in a game when they can slow down and catch a little bit of a break. We don't ever want to take a break. If someone can't do that, then we'll find someone who will. We've got some pretty good depth." The Blue Devils are led by senior guard Adrian Deere, who averaged 16 points per game last season. The only other returner with a scoring average to speak of is guard James Betori, who put up about 4 points per game last season. Webber isn't overly worried. He's seen plenty of improvement in point guard Eric Gillispie and is excited about newcomers Greg Swain, Jovan Jokic. Dominic Cuevas, Caleb Reames and Sam Schroeder. "We've got a lot of kids who have really worked hard and have bought in and improved," Webber said. "They've put a lot of time in on the court and in the weight room and they've been very coachable. I think we want to be good, and that's a big key."
Opener: Monday vs. Barrington at the Mundelein Thanksgiving tournament (4:30 p.m.)