Battle of a lifetime: How community is getting behind Fremd basketball coach who is fighting brain cancer
What started out as a simple trip to the emergency room, if there is such a thing, has turned into the challenge of a lifetime for Dave and Kathy Yates and their family.
Dave Yates is the highly successful girls basketball coach, and the head of the math department at Fremd High School in Palatine. An Elgin native, he and Kathy will be married for 28 years in July. They have four children, ranging in age from 24 to 14.
The Fremd girls basketball program has had two head coaches in its history -- hall of famer Carol Plodzien, and Dave Yates. But now basketball is taking a back seat to life for Yates, who is battling Glioblastoma Multiforme, a form of brain cancer that is the most aggressive and most common type of cancer that originates in the brain.
How it began
On Friday, April 21 Yates came home from work saying he wasn't feeling great. He was tired and "fighting something." That night, he started throwing up. He wasn't running a fever, but Kathy wrote in her journal they thought he just had a bug. By Sunday night Dave wasn't getting better and Kathy took him to the Northwest Community Hospital ER. A CT scan showed what was either an infection in his brain that was causing swelling or a large mass. Dave was quickly admitted in critical condition and the family was told he would be having brain surgery as the swelling was leaving no other option.
Early Monday morning, April 24, Dave and Kathy were told that, from the tests so far, they knew it was not an infection and was, in fact, brain cancer. Through a series of what turned out to be fortunate events, Dave's surgery was performed quickly that day. They were able to remove about 70% of one tumor, could not reach the second, and now discovered a third, also inoperable. But that's far from the end of this story.
Yates, the early years
Yates grew up in Elgin. His father Bob, who all the locals called Doc, was a dentist. Dave's mom, Julie, who now lives in Palatine, was an ER charge nurse at Sherman Hospital. Dave is the third of four boys. In 1987, during his junior year at St. Edward, Dave's basketball team made it downstate. After high school, Dave went on to play basketball at Elmhurst College. When Dave was a senior, Elmhurst made it to the NCAA DIII tournament. Dave was a captain of his team in college.
After graduating in 1992, Dave got his first teaching job at Gordon Tech High School in Chicago. He taught math and coached lower level boys basketball and baseball, and that's where he met Kathy, who was also a math teacher. Dave and Kathy married in 1995. In 1996, Dave had completed his masters and was ready to move back into full-time teaching.
"We decided it was time to try something different," Kathy said, "so we picked up and moved to Arizona."
After five years in Arizona, and now with two children, son Tanner and daughter Hope, the Yates clan decided it was time to come home.
"Although we loved Arizona, we missed our family back in Illinois," Kathy said.
After a stint as head boys basketball coach at Mahomet-Seymour, Yates returned to the suburbs, and in 2004, Dave and Kathy traveled to China to adopt their third child, Emma, who is now 19. In 2009, their fourth child, Brooklynn, was born.
In 2002, Dave accepted a position as a math teacher with District 211 as a traveling teacher, splitting time between Conant and Fremd He was also a freshman boys basketball coach under Bob Widlowski at Fremd. In 2006, while Dave was assistant principal, Plodzien retired and Yates took over the Fremd girls program.
"Dave had never coached girls basketball and we had long conversations about if his coaching style was going to be the right fit for the girls program," Kathy recalled.
It clearly was.
The coach, mentor and friend
Numerous Mid-Suburban League championships, regional titles, and sectional crowns, finally culminated with Fremd's first appearance downstate under Yates in 2015. The Vikings finished second that year and the next year, then fourth in 2017, before finally bringing home the program's first state championship in 2020, a title won just before the pandemic shut down all IHSA sports for over a year. Having coached in a state boys' title game in Arizona, Yates has now coached in state title games in boys and girls basketball, a rare feat indeed.
"Dave certainly has made his mark in the state of Illinois when it comes to coaching girls basketball," said longtime Barrington coach Babbi Barreiro, the dean of MSL girls basketball coaches.
"He has come to be one of the coaches who, year after year, set the standard for success and that is no accident. He works hard at it, and he seems to instill that hard work and fierce competitiveness in his players. I respect that he schedules big games against big competition and ultimately his team is better for it. I do also think that as a coach he has an innate understanding of the game and he knows how to not only impart that knowledge to his team, but to get the most out of his players."
Haley Gorecki played as a senior on that 2015 Fremd team that took second place at state. She scored over 2,000 career points at Fremd before going on to a stellar college career at Duke.
"Mr. Yates has meant so much to me and my career as a basketball player in so many ways," said Gorecki. "He and I have built a trust and friendship that will last a lifetime. I always tell people I wouldn't be the player I am without having Mr. Yates as my coach. He taught me more than just the basics, how to push myself in uncomfortable positions and so much more. I told him this every time I saw him, but if I could have had Mr. Yates as my coach for the rest of my career, I would have it that way in a heartbeat. He is so dedicated and just always wanted the best for me. Going on college basketball camp visits, or heading down to state I will remember for the rest of my life and it all happened because of Mr. Yates.
"It didn't stop there. Coach Yates would always reach out while I was in college checking in to see how I was, not even just about basketball but about life. A lifelong friend and mentor I'll have for the rest of my life. I also had the privilege of having him as my math teacher for a year in high school, which made our connection and friendship the way it is now. Mr. Yates has always been one of few people that I would catch up with and always want to see when I came back to the Palatine area, whether that was a visit to the school or taking a lunch break. He always kept conversations real."
IHSA assistant executive secretary Beth Sauser, a 1987 St. Edward graduate and the longtime IHSA administrator for girls basketball, knows Dave Yates as a former Green Wave athlete and now as a coach.
"David is a competitor, from when he was a high school player to now as a high school coach," Sauser said. "He's a dedicated educator in the classroom and on the court. David knows how to connect with his players at all levels of the Fremd program and with his peers. I know he will face this tough time head on with his family, school family, and basketball family."
Courtney Ludois has spent the past nine years as Yates' assistant coach.
"Dave has always been a mentor to me since I started here," said Ludois, who was recently named the new head coach at Hersey.
"He is my math department boss and my basketball boss, but it never felt like that. He always asks for input and wants and values ideas from other teachers and coaches. I know I'll be texting him all the time next year when I'm at Hersey for advice. Dave is the most supportive boss; he always has our back. He is also a great friend. Our coaching staff has always been super close, and we love to talk basketball and other sports together. He is an amazing person who has had an impact on too many people to count."
In his coaching career, Yates has amassed 482 wins as a head varsity coach, 385 of them as Fremd's girls coach, according to Daily Herald records. He's won eight MSL titles, 10 regionals and four sectionals.
Yates, the fighter
Now, having started radiation and chemotherapy treatments, Yates and his family brace for the challenge ahead, a challenge the Fremd community is sharing.
"We have been overwhelmed and grateful by the support from the community," Kathy said. "Dave is the love of my life. He is funny, smart, and my handsome man ... and can drive me crazy. The best parts of our kids come from him. He cares so much for his players and their families. Even after they have moved on, players continue to reach out to him for help and guidance, whether it is a basketball or school question or transition, or even advice on a job."
Said Gorecki: "Mr. Yates is a family man, with the best intentions before his own. He is a fighter, and he has a whole community behind him fighting and praying with him."
Barriero may have summed it up best.
"The Barrington/Fremd rivalry has been a great rivalry, but I can promise you that right now we are all on Team Yates, and behind him 100 percent," she said. "I know he will battle and I am wishing him strength and comfort in knowing so many of us in the Illinois basketball community are pulling for him."
YatesHoopsFest on May 21
A fundraiser for Yates is being organized for May 21. Log on to yateshoopsfest.wixsite.com/my-site-1 for more information.