Michael Bens Lake ZurichWith Bens in the lineup over the last two years, Lake Zurich has won more than 40 games. "He's been a great leader and captain for us this year," Lake Zurich coach Billy Pitcher said of Bens, who averaged 13.8 points on the season. "He is a smooth-shooting lefty." Bens hit 68 3-pointers during the regular season, connecting at a 39 percent clip. He also topped Lake Zurich with seven 20-point games, including a 25-point outburst against Warren. He scored the second-most points in Lake Zurich's MLK tournament, with 89 points in five games.
James Connolly Grayslake NorthA gym rat, Connolly has worked himself into one of the best players in the area. And he's just a junior. "James is the kind of athlete that you have to push out of the gym," Grayslake North coach Todd Grunloh said. "He sees every day and every single drill as an opportunity to improve his shot." Connolly averaged 16 points and 6 rebounds per game. His best game of the season came against East Peoria in which he scored 33 points and at one point was 7-of-7 from 3-point range. He had 44 3-pointers during the regular season, hitting at a 43 percent clip. "We have placed greater expectations and responsibilities upon James," Grunloh said. "We asked him to become our primary rebounder and we depend on him to score in a variety of ways."
Ian Haflinger LakesIn just one year, Haflinger went from a reserve at Lakes to setting the school record for points in a game with 42 points against Round Lake. "He put the work in during the off-season and it paid off big time for him," Lakes coach Chris Snyder said. "He had a dominate year for us this year. He was our leading scorer at 14.2 points per game and carried the team on his back all year." Haflinger had 6 double-doubles on the season and is getting looks from multiple Division III programs. "Ian really evolved as a player over his four years," Snyder said. "He added a 15-foot jumper to his game that allowed him to expand his scoring options. He was able to score at a high level even when teams were expecting it."
Willie Herenton StevensonHerenton stepped into the role of full-time starter for Stevenson this season and thrived. A dangerous driver, Herenton was usually either finishing or getting fouled. And fouls also led to points for him as he connected on 80 percent of his free throws. "Willie has blossomed into a bona fide scorer this year while also improving his defensive play and all-around court savvy," Stevenson coach Pat Ambrose said. "He also has an outstanding jump shot which makes him a threat to score each time he has the ball. Herenton averaged 17.2 points per game while hitting 51 percent of his shots. He had a season-high 36-point game in a win against Zion-Benton.
Brian Julien CarmelMost coaches don't usually sit kids down to remind them to be more selfish with the basketball. If anything, the opposite is true and kids are told to be less unselfish. Julien is an exception. He got the "we need you to do more" talk. Actually, it was more like a plea. "Brian is an extremely unselfish player who I had to beg to take over games at times," Carmel coach Zack Ryan said. Still, Julien still led the East Suburban Catholic Conference in scoring at 15 points per game. He also grabbed 3 rebounds and dished out 3 assists per game as well. Julien hit 41 percent of his 3-pointers and nearly 50 percent of his shots overall. "His game is extremely efficient," Ryan said of Julien, who started since his sophomore year.
John Kerr GrantKerr has come a long way. As a freshman, Kerr was on the B team, but since then he has grown six inches and his game has blossomed. "He really started to develop and grow into his body sophomore year and he finished his junior season last year averaging a double-double for the last month of the season," Grant coach Wayne Boswoth said. "He has taken that right into this season and averaged a double-double the entire season at 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. John's best days are ahead of him as a basketball player since he grew late and developed into his body. If he ends up at the Division III level, he will be a huge steal." Kerr finished the regular season with 15 double-doubles, including 19 points and 15 rebounds in a win over Zion-Benton and 30 points and 14 rebounds in a win over North Chicago.
Zach Kuligoski Round LakeOn and off the court, Kuligoski was a role model for his teammates. In school, he carries a 3.9 grade point average. After school, he carried the Panthers in just about every statistical category. He averaged 19.6 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. He shot 42 percent from the field and had 6 double-doubles, including a 33-point, 10-rebound performance against North Chicago. "He has a great work ethic and a great attitude, which has been a positive influence on our younger players," Round Lake coach Jeremy Fisher said. "He has been a force on the inside and can also hit 3s. Zach will be missed next year."
Ben Kusiak GrantGrant's 13-1 championship run through the Northern Lake County Conference was particularly meaningful for Kusiak. He was one of three sophomores brought up to the varsity two years ago. That team endured a 3-win season. "He knew the payoff would come later," Grant coach Wayne Bosworth said. "The payoff came this year in the conference and with Ben being second in every statistical category. Every year, Ben has gotten not just physically stronger but his game has improved and he's added a 3-point shot and improved in other major areas like rebounding and defense." Kusiak averaged 12 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists per game. He hit 50 percent of his shots and had a season-high 28 points against Wauconda. Off the court, Kusiak is ranked ninth in the senior class.
Ryan Kutsor Lake ZurichAlthough just a junior, Kutsor is already getting a lot of college attention. "I've received calls and e-mails from Division I schools like Southern Illinois, Wisconsin-Green Bay, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Western Illinois, Colgate, Lafayette and Cornell," Lake Zurich coach Billy Pitcher said. "Ryan has good size and great versatility. He has NBA range, can drive, post, handle and has 7 dunks on the season." Kutsor, who hit 40 percent of his threes this season, led the entire Pekin holiday tournament field in scoring with 90 points in four games and scored more than 20 points in all four games. On the season, he averaged 15.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game.
Chris Mariella Vernon HillsMariella didn't have long to transition from football to basketball. He was key in helping the Cougars advance to the Class 5A state championship football game, where he caught 10 passes for 99 yards and a touchdown. He had exactly one basketball practice under his belt before he started his first game of the season against Grayslake North and scored 11 points. "He had a very smooth transition from football to basketball," Vernon Hills coach Matt McCarty said. "And he has been Mr. Versatility for us. He has the ability to play the off-guard position but has also handled the point. Chris has a very good mid-range game and has the ability to back his defender down in the paint and score with his back to the basket." Mariella averaged 14.7 points and 3.5 rebounds per game. In five games at the MLK tournament at Lake Zurich, Mariella finished as the tournament's leading scorer.
Juwan Perry WarrenWhen the lights were the brightest, Perry tended to shine the most. He had some of his best games against Warren's toughest opponents, such as a 26-point effort against Stevenson, 18 points against Zion-Benton, 23 points against Oak Park-River Forest, 20 points against Bloomington and 15 points against Notre Dame. "Juwan is our leader on the court," Warren coach Jon Jasnoch said. "He stabilizes our team. He was a 3-year varsity player and a 2-year starter. Perry was one of the best defensive players in the area with 2 steals per game and was Warren's second-leading scorer at 11.1 points per game. He also averaged 5 rebounds and 3 assists per game.
Drew Peterson LibertyvilleEven though he's 6-foot-7, Peterson has been more of a perimeter player over the course of his career. He loves shooting 3-pointers (he hit 60 during the regular season) and handling the ball. But his versatility allows him to fill in any gap Libertyville has. "Drew has come a long way this year developing his all-around offensive game," Libertyville coach Brent Mork said. "He's been asked to become a more legit post threat due to his size and the mismatches he gets. He is a guy that we have had to lean on heavily and ask a lot out of." Peterson, who has multiple Division I offers, averaged 19.5 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists per game. He had 13 20-plus-point games and 3 30-plus-point games.
Justin Smith StevensonSmith, the two-time Daily Herald player of the year, brought high-flying basketball to Lake County. One of the most prolific dunkers in the area's recent history, the 6-foot-7 Smith became known for dunking during his sophomore year and has kept that reputation going. He dunked six times in a game against Crete-Monee this season, and dozens of times altogether. But dunking isn't the only impressive part of Smith's game. He has great range for his size and is a threat from 3-point territory. He can also handle the ball and of course, drive and pound inside. Smith averaged 21 points and 9.8 rebounds per game this season. He connected on 55 percent of his shots. "Justin has shown remarkable growth as a player and as a leader during the course of his four years on varsity," Stevenson coach Pat Ambrose said. "He has expanded his game significantly each season as well as his leadership skills." Smith will continue his career next season at Indiana.
Jarod Stonis WaucondaOn a senior-heavy team last year, the plan by the coaches at Wauconda was to bring Stonis (a junior then) along slowly. "But Jarod wasn't having it," Wauconda coach Scott Luetschwager said. "His play forced us to move his time table up and he was starting by Christmas." Stonis has kept his foot on the gas ever since. He averaged 17.6 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.8 steals per game this season. In the season opener against Richmond-Burton, he poured in 35 points on 4 3-pointers and 9-of-13 free throws. "Jarod practices the shots he is going to get in the game every day," Luetschwager said. "I don't see him wasting any of his shots in practice. Everything is at game speed and the type of shot that he plans to get in a game."
Jamal Thomas Grayslake NorthIt's been a productive two years at Grayslake North for Thomas, a transfer from Michigan. This season, Thomas became Grayslake North's all-time assist leader with 345 assists. He also eclipsed the 1,000-point mark, despite facing heavy defensive focus and sometimes even double teams. This season, Thomas averaged 23.1 points, 7.6 assists and 5.2 rebounds per game. He broke Grayslake North's single-game scoring mark with 39 points against Grant as well as the school's single-game assist mark with 15 against East Peoria. "Jamal has the ability to score 30-plus points, which he has done six times this year, but also have 10-plus assists in that same game," Grayslake North coach Todd Grunloh said. "As much as we rely on him to do his fair share of scoring, he always goes out of his way to get his teammates involved in the offense."
Player School Pos. Ht. Yr.
Michael Bens Lake Zurich G 6-1 Sr.
James Connolly Grayslake North G/F 6-3 Jr.
Ian Haflinger Lakes F 6-5 Sr.
Willie Herenton Stevenson G 6-2 Sr.
Brian Julien Carmel G 5-10 Sr.
John Kerr Grant F/C 6-6 Sr.
Zach Kuligoski Round Lake F 6-5 Sr.
Ben Kusiak Grant G 6-0 Sr.
Ryan Kutsor Lake Zurich G 6-4 Jr.
Chris Mariella Vernon Hills G 6-1 Sr.
Juwan Perry Warren G 6-0 Sr.
Drew Peterson Libertyville G/F 6-7 Jr.
*Justin Smith Stevenson F 6-7 Sr.
Jarod Stonis Wauconda F 6-3 Sr.
Jamal Thomas Grayslake North G 6-0 Sr.
* All-area team captain
Honorable mentionLibertyville G Harrison Bach, sr., Carmel G John Barr, sr., Mundelein F Jeff Bikus, jr., Grayslake North G Ryan Connolly, fr., Lake Zurich G/F Pete DiCerbo, jr., Wauconda F Kyle Drobnik, sr., Warren G Branden Ellis, jr., Antioch G Dan Filippone, soph., Antioch F Reece Eldridge, sr., Grant G Michael Huff, jr., Grant G Logan Lewis, sr., Carmel G Evan Myers, soph., Warren F Declan O'Connor, sr., Carmel F Johnny Roeser, soph., Lakes G Kyle Rohr, sr., Grayslake Central F Jack Spalding, jr., Stevenson G Eric Zalewski, sr.
Selections and profiles by Patricia Babcock McGraw