By Joe Henricksen
Some of last year's most important players on a few of the breakthrough teams weren't the biggest stars; they only reinforced their team's rise. Now those players have to be replaced. They weren't the big names found in newspaper articles or heavily courted by college coaches. But these types of players are the names high school coaches remember and wish they had more of no matter what year or season it is.
We're talking the glue guys, the unheralded players who just make teams better and often have a unique ability to provide various ingredients a team needs to succeed. Despite not being the star, these players are important "spokes in the wheel." And several top teams with heavy expectations this winter must find ways to replace these exact type of players.
The expectations at Benet Academy are sky high. A year after reinvigorating the basketball program with a run to the Class 4A supersectional, coach Gene Heidkamp welcomes back the three best players from that team, including Division I recruits David Sobolewski and 6-10 Frank Kaminsky. However, the aforementioned key parts to the success of Benet Academy -- and several other top teams in the Chicago area -- will be missed and have to be replaced in order to maintain the level of success each of these teams enjoyed a year ago. The search for those replacements begins Monday when the high school basketball season officially starts with the opening of practice.
The City/Suburban Hoops Report takes a look at several teams in the precarious position of having to fill valuable minutes that were not always recognized by the average fan. These are teams fresh off big seasons and who return big-named talent, yet those close to and within the programs know themselves what important elements were lost.
The Hype: The Redwings snapped St. Joseph's string of consecutive titles in the East Suburban Catholic Conference last year while rolling through league play with an unbeaten record. Now Benet, with the return of the trio of future Northwestern point guard David Sobolewski, shooter/defender Matt Parisi and Wisconsin-bound big man Frank Kaminsky, will be in everyone's preseason top 10 rankings and favored to repeat in the ESCC.
The Absence: Aside from the emergence of Sobolewski as a star last season, no other key ingredient was as important as Benet's halfcourt defense. Benet was better than their look test due to that stingy defense. That physical style of defense was often overlooked by fans and opponents and it's what allowed the Redwings to surpass everyone's expectations. While Parisi will be back as Benet's top on-the-ball defender, no one realizes how important the senior tandem of 6-3 Dylan Flood and 6-3 Mike Runger were to Heidkamp's team. No, they didn't put up big numbers, but they were so instrumental in providing defense, toughness and some size. This Benet team will be better offensively than a year ago, but the defensive success will determine if it can match last year's success.
The Hype: First, Hillcrest reloads. Every year. Second, the team's best and most influential player, point guard Juice Brown, returns. But this is a little different. The Hawks are coming off the first-ever basketball state championship in school history. Nonetheless, coach Don Houston's club figures to be one of the top teams in the south suburbs and a threat to reach Peoria again in Class 3A.
The Absence: The loss of Kent State-bound Eric Gaines will be obvious and noticed by everyone, but the loss of some of the unheralded seniors from a year ago should not go unnoticed. The trio of 6-4 Darren Tillman, versatile Nick Oden and do-what-it-takes Herbert Offord made an impact on each and every game in some way and fashion. Whether it was their defense, rebounding, second-chance scoring opportunities or simply their infectious attitude, Tillman, Oden and Offord provided a constant for the Hawks that will be awfully difficult to replace.
The Hype: Coach Scott Miller's club won a school record 27 games last season, went 14-0 in the DuPage Valley and won a regional title before falling to Benet in the sectional championship. The Rams return their top two players in four-year starter Zach Miller, a point guard headed to Northern Illinois, and 6-3 all-state candidate Johnny Hill, who will sign with Illinois State next week.
The Absence: Everything that three-year starter Jack Merrithey brought to the table last season rarely showed up in the box score, though he was capable of popping for 20-plus on a given night. Glenbard East will be hard pressed to match Merrithey's ferocious competitiveness, toughness, leadership and incessant man-to-man defense. More than anything, Merrithey provided a presence last season and found ways to make important plays in big moments.
DE LA SALLE
The Hype: The De La Salle fanbase and alums have been anticipating this season -- Mike Shaw's senior year -- for quite some time. The belief is this is the season the Meteors make the next jump and bring home some state hardware. Coach Tom White's club has talented Division I veterans to go along with a bevy of promising young players, including sophomores Alex Foster and Jaylon Tate who gained valuable varsity time a year ago.
The Absence: Yes, the talent in the program is certainly abundant. However, the graduation of D.J. Bland, a football-playing tough guy with some basketball skill, and 6-3 Troy Torrence will be felt. In some of De La Salle's biggest moments last year, it was Bland and Torrence providing huge, unheralded lifts. It was Bland's 14 points that helped fuel the romp over Simeon in late February. It was Bland and Torrence combining for 30 points in the regional title victory. Bland and Torrence were underrated and productive players and will be missed.
The first issue of the season of the City/Suburban Hoops Report, now in its 16th year of publication, will be due out next week. For more information or to subscribe to the Hoops Report, call (630)-408-6709 or email firstname.lastname@example.org