It's an emotional finish for Grayslake Central's Kougias
Li'l Liliana isn't so little anymore and loves to ice skate. Stand within proximity to Prox and you might absorb a kick, Taekwondo style.
All in good fun, of course.
For the two children of Grayslake Central boys basketball coach Kosta Kougias and his wife, Julie, it beats hanging out at a hoops practice. Sorry, Dad. They have their own interests.
"None of those are really meshing with basketball," Kougias said with a laugh. "They're not breaking down my car door to come to a Saturday morning practice with me."
Miss too many of your kids' games and you might sit in your car and break down crying. Kougias, whose home in Arlington Heights is a 45-minute commute to Grayslake, was getting to the point. He arrived at that fork in the road that so many coaches have. He chose Liliana, 9, and Prox, 6.
Of course he did.
So after Kougias' Rams lost to host St. Patrick in a Class 3A regional final last Friday night, he told his players he was resigning as head coach.
"Ultimately, what it came down to is, my kids are now finding their own passions," Kougias said. "And I haven't had a chance to sit in the stands and cheer them on."
Kougias just completed his fifth season since replacing Brian Moe, who stepped down following the 2013-14 campaign to become Grayslake Central's athletic director. Kougias, who served three seasons under Moe and previously coached at Hersey and Stevenson as well, decided in early January that this would be his last season. He discussed it with assistant coach Brian Centella and Moe, but didn't want to go public with his decision because he didn't want it to be a distraction to his team.
Liliana recently found a passion in ice skating and competes for a team out of Rolling Meadows.
"Every time my wife gave me the dates of those competitions, unfortunately, it was a day we had a game," Kougias said. "In early December, my wife approached me and said, 'Liliana, is going to do a solo.' I said, 'When is it?' She said, 'I'm not sure but I think it's a date in March.' It hit me when she said that because, not knowing when that date was, I was wondering, 'What if we're still playing in March? What if the date is March 1?' "
After a 73-66 loss to visiting Grayslake North on Feb. 2 dropped the Rams to 8-12, it didn't look like they would have to worry about playing ball in March. But that night, Kougias, knowing he had a month left as head coach of a team he adored, challenged his players. It was an emotional night.
He called it a "turning point" in the season, and his players responded by "playing out of their minds," Kougias said, in the final month.
The Rams won their next five games and seven of their next eight. Once 4-4 in the Northern Lake County Conference, they had a chance to earn a share of the conference championship but lost to Grant on their home floor.
"That Monday at practice (after the Grayslake North loss), those kids came in and were ready to tune it up," Kougias said. "We had to end practice early because the competition was getting so rough."
The Rams advanced to the regional final at St. Patrick against the host school. The game was tied with four minutes left, before St. Patrick prevailed 63-51, ending Grayslake Central's season at 16-14.
"I couldn't have asked for a better closing to the month," Kougias said. "I'm so just proud of them. They become your sons.
"When we were in that postgame locker room at St. Pats on Friday, obviously a lot of emotions were coming through. I let them know I felt like I had done everything I could to coach other people's kids right and be this so-called father figure to them."
In his five seasons (64-75 record), Kougias says he didn't have parent interference. They trusted him with their kids, and he appreciates that. He appreciates the lessons he learned by being on the staffs of Moe, Don Rowley (Hersey) and Pat Ambrose (Stevenson), all of whom he considers mentors.
"I'm proud of the work that I've put in, in the five years here as a head coach," Kougias said. "I'll be just as proud five years from now when I look back, and I'll hopefully feel like I've left it in a good place."
Kougias knows his new place will be wherever his kids compete. It'll be better place for him than a Saturday morning practice.
• Follow Joe on Twitter: @JoeAguilar64