Wheaton North's all-time leading scorer in girls basketball shines in Morton's elite JUCO squad
Playing junior college basketball can often times be rewarding, especially for those athletes who "fly under the radar" in high school.
Just ask Wheaton North graduate Claire Hyde.
Despite the fact the 5-foot-6 Hyde was Wheaton North's all-time leading scorer, she didn't draw much interest from Division I programs.
Enter Morton College in Cicero and former Montini coach Jason Nichols.
Hyde found a home in Cicero and a team that turned out to be one of the best JUCO squads in the country.
And she thrived for the Panthers, helping the team to a 31-0 regular season, the program's first No. 1 ranking, and eventually a fifth-place finish at the JUCO Division II national tournament.
Along the way, Hyde became the nation's leader in made 3-pointers with 138, shooting just over 35% from long range. She averaged 17.1 points per game and also pitched in 6.4 rebounds per game.
The postseason accolades rolled in for Hyde, including being named a NJCAA Division II first team All-American, the only freshman on the 10-player first team.
"First of all, all glory to God for this past season and what he allowed us to accomplish," said Hyde, the DuKane Conference Player of the Year last year at Wheaton North.
"It was such a great experience and really just an honor to be able to play alongside every girl on this team. Consistently working hard throughout the entirety of the season was difficult, but really rewarding at the end of the day. Having coaches and players who cared so much and gave everything they had was a big separator and something you don't see in every program. I really wanted to do it for them, all the sophomores that might never play again, and everyone who just absolutely sold out for the season."
JUCO basketball sometimes takes a bad rap, for a variety of reasons. And when Hyde decided to go to Morton, she was admittedly not well versed on what she was getting herself into.
"Being able to experience junior college basketball this year was an eye-opener for me in the best way possible," she said. "Before making the decision of coming to Morton, I had no idea what to expect playing JUCO or what the competition was like. I didn't really even know how it worked. After coming here, though, it really was just so cool to be a part of it.
"Another part of it was the girls on the team. I will never forget this experience, but they made it all worth it for me in a way that is really hard to describe. It didn't matter if we were on or off the court, but I wanted to give them the best I had no matter what it was. I know I fell short of that more than I probably would like to admit, but to look at them every day and to go through all that we did this year was something really special for me."
Morton had already put its name on the map under Nichols, who left Montini after the 2019-20 season and 17 seasons. At Montini, Nichols was one of the most successful coaches in Illinois, going 521-72. The Broncos went 171-3 in conference games, with all three losses in overtime. His teams won their league title each year he coached. The Broncos also won 15 sectionals, including a streak of 14 in a row. Montini earned four state championships under Nichols.
Under Nichols, Morton went 17-2 in the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 spring season, 30-3 in 2021-22 and then 35-1 this past season.
"When I saw the success of the team last year and the fact that most of the girls were staying to play again, I knew it would definitely be a possibility that we would make it pretty far," Hyde said. "We have some unbelievable players on this team as well as coaches that hold us accountable to our standards. Although that doesn't always guarantee success, it allowed us to have an unforgettable year, and I think we reaped what we sowed. It was really cool to see our growth this year as a whole from beginning to end."
And Hyde developed a part of her game she hadn't used in high school.
"This year was definitely an adjustment for me because I had never played the point guard position at a high level," she said. "Throughout AAU (she played for Midwest Elite) I was mainly just a shooter, and in high school I had the ball in my hands a lot more and not facilitating much. So coming in and knowing the role I would be playing, I knew I would need some help in figuring a lot of stuff out at this position. The coaches and players were so helpful and patient with me in helping learn nuances of the game, making reads, and being efficient as a team. It was really a joy for me to come in every day and work hard with these girls and try to make the most of every opportunity to get better."
What the future holds for Hyde is something she leaves to her strong faith.
"My life is in the hands of my Lord Jesus Christ," she said. "I have not made any decisions about next year yet. This has been a prayerful time for my family and I for trying to see what the Lord's will is for these next steps. As of right now, all I want to do is go wherever he leads me."
Wherever that ends up being, it's a pretty safe bet Hyde will succeed.
John Radtke can be reached at email@example.com.