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At 6-foot-6, with a full beard that has become his signature and a fan favorite, Wauconda center Ricky Sidlowski certainly has a memorable look.
The cross country community is especially intrigued.
It's not often that a 6-foot-6 basketball star joins the official high school racing circuit and consistently pushes some of the top long-distance runners in the area.
"When I go up to get a medal, I get some looks, that's for sure," Sidlowski laughed. "I mean, there are a lot of guys there who are 5-foot-6, 5-foot. Most runners are kind of short. They're not used to seeing someone like me there."
But Sidlowski, a throw-back, back-to-the-basket big man who is hoping to toss in enough of his trademark sky hooks this season to average a double-double and help the Bulldogs finish with a winning record, has seemingly fit right into a sport he tried for the first time just two years ago. He's qualified for the sectional cross country meet each of the last two seasons. He's two-for-two.
His best 3-mile time is 16:44 and he says that pushing himself in cross-country has made him a better basketball player.
"My (basketball) coaches were telling me after my freshman year that it would be good to do a fall sport to get ready for basketball and I didn't want to do football because I'm too small," said Sidlowski, a 16-year-old junior who may big vertically, but is far from it horizontally. He's an extra lean 175 pounds.
"Cross country has been good because it's helped me get into shape," Sidlowski said. "And it also helps with the mental aspect of sports. Cross country is really tough and sometimes you feel like you can't go anymore, but you don't quit in the middle of the race. You keep going and you push through. I think being able to do that helps me be tougher in basketball, too."
Wauconda fans have already been touting Sidlowski's toughness, holding up signs at games that have told opponents to "Fear the Beard." But Sidlowski, who busts out the beard only during basketball season, is glad he's got more of an edge than that.
Often undersized and outmuscled in the girth and strength departments, the stamina Sidlowski gains during cross country season helps him go toe-to-toe with some of the more physical big men in the area. Because he's in such great shape, he's able to better withstand the constant pounding; and often, he's able to out-last and out-quick his defenders up and down the court.
"I like to think I'm quicker than the big guys who are bulkier than me," Sidlowski said. "I like the battles in the post, but I think my biggest advantage is that I can keep going up and down the court forever. I don't get out of wind very easily."
Sidlowski channels much of his relentless energy into rebounding. He's averaging about 8 rebounds this season, to go along with 8 points per game.
"His knack for finding the ball on rebounds is so good," Wauconda coach Scott Luetschwager said. "He had two tip-ins against Woodstock and when you were watching it, you just had no idea how he even got a hand on the ball, let alone got it to go in. He does a great job of making things happen for himself."
Luetschwager has taken a special interest in working with Sidlowski, partly because Sidlowski reminds him so much of himself. The 6-foot-10 Luetschwager was lanky when he played high school basketball, and then college ball at Trinity International in Deerfield. He also was more of a traditional, back-to-the-basket big man, just like Sidlowski.
On top of that, Luetschwager also has a beard. And it's styled just like Sidlowski's beard.
"It's funny," Luetschwager says, "He's kind of the smaller version of me."
Sidlowski, who, in some ways, already has a smaller version of himself in twin sister Becky, a 5-foot-10 volleyball standout at Wauconda, says that people often ask him if there's any relation between him and Luetschwager.
"I've had guys from other teams ask me if I'm his son," Sidlowski laughs. "It's pretty funny. I guess we do look pretty similar.
"I know he understands my position a lot. He's a really good coach. He likes to help me with my moves in the post and with my defense. I've taken a lot of his advice and, so far, it's worked really well."
Luetschwager, whose wife Alexandra happens to be a cross country coach at Wauconda, was first to advise Sidlowski to try cross-country.
Looks like that's worked out pretty well, too.
Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw