By Joe Henricksen
Walk into the East Aurora gym a year ago and there was a buzz and electricity. The great, old basketball venue on the East Side of Aurora was rocking, maybe not quite like the Ernie Kivisto days when the Tomcats put up big point totals and excited the masses behind the passionate and entertaining coach, but the "Boat Show" was a draw.
Just one year later and with Ryan Boatright playing at UConn, East Aurora, which reached a sectional final last season, is suffering through the toughest season in the tradition-rich program's history. The Tomcats are a hard-to-believe 2-23 in the final week of the regular season.
East Aurora, in a peculiar twist of fate, is one of several highly-successful programs in the Chicago area dealing with something it has rarely experienced: losing. Thornton has been out of the conference race all season and is 10-13. Defending 2A state champs Hales Franciscan is 11-17. Zion-Benton is in last place in the North Suburban Lake and in jeopardy of having its first losing season in 18 years.
"It's different but it hasn't been as difficult as some would think," says East Aurora coach Wendell Jeffries, who took over the program a decade ago. "I'm a coach. Some take losing to heart. I take it as a learning tool and experience. You gain from it as a team -- and as a coach -- and get better."
Thornton basketball has an elite history and has enjoyed enormous success, including a joyride over the past eight years under current coach Troy Jackson. The past eight years in Harvey have produced a whopping 24 wins a season and an overall won-loss total of 195-44. Throw in eight straight regional titles and three trips to Peoria and it's easy for an average fan to do a double-take when seeing the current 10-13 record Thornton has in February.
"It's been very tough, especially when you are so used to the seasons we've had for so many years," says Jackson, who went 76-11 in three seasons at Proviso East prior to taking over the Thornton program. "These are good kids who have worked hard. It's certainly been different, at times a real challenge."
Hales Franciscan is a program that has won two state championships and finished third once since 2003. Plus, there was a state title won in 2005 that Hales was forced to forfeit. The expectations remained high for the 2011-2012 season.
Coach Gary London's club was fresh off winning a Class 2A state championship last year and returned its top player, 6-5 Division I prospect Aaric Armstead. The Spartans were expected to be among the top 10 teams when the preseason rankings came out, but that all changed quickly in August. Aaric Armstead left Hales and moved to California, along with his two brothers -- up-and-coming junior Adam Armstead and talented freshman Austin Armstead.
Losing the Armstead clan has proved to be too much to overcome overnight. The Spartans, who will get a shot at Class 2A favorite Seton Academy in a regional final Friday night, have struggled to a 11-17 record.
And then there is Zion-Benton, a program that hasn't suffered through a losing season in nearly 20 years. The Zee-Bees have been so successful under coach Don Kloth that they have won at least 18 games every year since the 1992-93 season, which was the last time they were under .500. In that nearly two-decade long run, Kloth's teams averaged an astonishing 23 wins a year. Throw in some postseason success -- 13 regional championships, four sectional titles and a state runner-up finish in 2008 -- and Zion-Benton has been one of the state's winningest programs over the past 20 years.
This year? Zion-Benton is uncharacteristically in last place in the North Suburban Lake with a 2-10 record and just 13-14 overall.
The hovering around .500 hasn't been completely unexpected in Zion. The Zee-Bees returned just one regular, super sophomore Milik Yarbrough, from last year's team. Kloth has often started three sophomores and a junior this year in a senior-heavy North Suburban Lake Conference.
"We have faith, we trust our system and we've been quite pleased with how our players have hung in there," Kloth points out. "The attitude has been great, but it's been a learning process. I can't say it hasn't been a little different."
Adds Jeffries, "It definitely poses different challenges, but we have some younger talent. It's not going to last too long."
Maybe more surprising than the struggles of these particular programs is the fact it hasn't happened sooner. It is high school basketball, after all, where new recruits stock the cupboard. A down cycle is bound to happen sooner or later.
"As a high school basketball coach, at this level, you're going to periodically have a year like this where you don't win as much," says Kloth. "You do get used to winning, but this is reality."