By Joe Henricksen
Some high school students start school this week, most of them next week and the majority of Chicago Public Schools will open their doors after Labor Day. And, yes, it's the start of football season. But the start of the new school year means basketball practice officially begins in less than three months.
Whether it was a lightning bolt finish at the end of last season that figures to carry over into 2012-2013 or simply the return of a strong nucleus of talent, there are several Chicago area basketball programs who are anxious for the first bell of first period to ring this school year. That's because a highly-anticipated season is right around the corner.
These aren't the only programs energized for the 2012-2013 season, but here is a look at 10 programs who certainly have the calendar date of Nov. 5 circled, the first official day of high school basketball in Illinois.
Simeon. Duh, this one is obvious. Even a potential Chicago teacher's strike would be taken care of by November. Wouldn't you be chomping at the bit to get after it with the return of Jabari Parker and Kendrick Nunn, along with a loaded supporting cast, as the Wolverines prepare for a run at a fourth straight state championship? This is history-making stuff, with the chance for Simeon to equal Peoria Manual's state record four straight state championships in the mid-1990s.
Proviso East. You didn't think the Pirates were going to go away, did you? First, it's no doubt going to be difficult to match last season's magical run, which included a 32-1 record and a state runner-up finish. But coach Donnie Boyce's program has the pieces to at least try, with the return of 6-5 Sterling Brown, a coveted high-major prospect, and returning guard Paris Lee, who is committed to Illinois State. Look for highly-athletic Brandon Jenkins and junior Jevon Carter to emerge this season as big-time offensive weapons.
Washington. This program may not be in the Chicago area -- it sits just a few miles east of Peoria -- but it boasts a star in 6-7 Alec Peters, one of the state's elite coaches in Kevin Brown and returning talent from a 2012 3A sectional finalist. And, oh, Brown's team was a chemistry class in action this summer as the fine-tuned Panthers rolled to a 32-2 record, winning practically every shootout and camp tournament it played in this past June, including shootout titles at Peoria Richwoods, Lincoln and Illinois Wesleyan. Washington will be one of the 3A favorites in March.
St. Joseph. There is no question this is the most talent legendary coach Gene Pingatore has had at St. Joe's since the Demetri McCamey-Evan Turner days. The roster is filled with blossoming players. The return of 6-8 senior A.J. Patty, senior wing Ronald Lewis and juniors Paul Turner, Michael Brooks and Karriem Simmons is a start. But when you add the promising sophomore backcourt of Jordan Ash and Glynn Watson, the Chargers could make a run at a Catholic League title. The big question: How difficult will it be to replace under-the-radar star Reggie Johnson, who graduated and is now at Miami-Ohio?
Marist. Remember that team the Hoops Report felt so good about last March? The RedHawks went on to upset Curie in the regional final and Bogan in the sectional semis before falling to Simeon. Coach Gene Nolan welcomes back his top three players in Valpo-bound point guard Lexus Williams, 6-0 senior guard L.J. McIntosh and unheralded Nic Weishar, a rugged and versatile 6-5 junior. Plus, Marist will have a pair of players in Jack Barry and Will Brennan who gained experience last season. Senior guard Zack Niemiera had a solid summer and promising sophomore guard Jeremiah Ferguson transferred in from Wheaton Academy.
Waubonsie Valley. Neuqua Valley has averaged nearly 25 wins a season over the past eight years. Playing with its first group of seniors in school history, coach Bob Vozza's Metea Valley team won the Upstate Eight Valley, 25 games and a regional title a year ago. Now it could be Waubonsie Valley's turn, which could have its best team since the 2001-2002 team went 28-2 if the point guard play is steady and consistent. The program certainly has its best player in school history -- sweet shooting guard Jared Brownridge, one of the top 20 prospects in the Class of 2013. Brownridge is not the only talent returning from an 18-9 team. Both Bryan Jefferson, a 6-6 senior, and 6-6 junior Jack Cordes are poised for breakthrough seasons after playing key roles a year ago. Plus, guard Dylan Warden and 6-4 Javares Steward return as the Warriors will be the team to beat in the Upstate Eight Valley.
St. Viator. This team and program will be heading into the season with their chest out a little more after winning a school record 25 games, going unbeaten and winning its first outright East Suburban Catholic title and capturing a regional championship. A team that went 10 deep a year ago will welcome back six players, including highly-thought-of Ore Arongundade, a 6-1 junior, and sophomore point guard Mark Falotico. Plus, with Arongundade and Falotico on varsity, the sophomore team still managed to go 17-8 a year ago. While it will be difficult to match last year's success, a promising run will continue for coach Mike Howland and the Lions.
Orr. A year ago the Spartans were the No. 1 sectional seed but were stunned by No. 8 seed Wheaton St. Francis in the regional final. That bitter taste lingers but is offset by the fact Orr is loaded with talent. If that talent comes together and stays intact, this has the potential to be the best Orr team in school history. The trio of 6-7 Marquise Pryor, 6-8 Marlon Jones and 6-6 junior Tyquone Greer forms a frontline of Division I talent. Add tough, veteran point guard Jamal McDowell and 6-2 sophomore guard Lou Adams, who was recently offered by Pan American.
Whitney Young. What people forget is the Dolphins, who battled injuries a year ago, were a bunch of pups last year with the sophomore trio of 6-10 Jahlil Okafor, 6-9 Paul White and point guard Miles Reynolds all playing pivotal roles. Young did win a regional title before falling to Simeon in the sectional semis, but this junior nucleus is back. And keep an eye on emerging Joseph Toye, a 6-4 athletic wing with loads of promise. But with Okafor, a consensus top five talent nationally in the Class of 2014, coach Tyrone Slaughter has something no other coach in the state of Illinois possesses: a true, refined, polished and unstoppable back-to-the-basket force down low.
Normal U-High. Along with the aforementioned Washington, here is another central Illinois program with huge expectations after finishing second in Class 2A a year ago. The bad news is U-High moves up in classes this year and will compete in 3A. The good news is 6-8 junior Keita Bates-Diop, one of the top 30 players in the country in the Class of 2014, is back and better. Plus, senior Nick Schroeder and a pair of up-and-coming juniors, 6-5 Malik Wildermuth and 6-6 Kane Wildermuth, all return from a 28-win team.
And at the other end of the spectrum ...
The fortunes have changed for a few programs in the Chicago area. The news certainly isn't all dire, but for various reasons these teams have been dealt some difficult circumstances and have lost a little buzz heading into the 2012-2013 season.
Mundelein. Coach Richard Knar's program was supposed to be on the list above. But ... The news of Robert Knar's blown ACL in late July is still resonating. This was a team that would have been ranked among the top 20 teams in the Chicago area and picked to win the North Suburban Lake -- with a healthy Knar, the high-scoring guard who is committed to Northern Iowa. It's a no-doubt-about-it punch in the gut to a program with such high expectations. And even with several other key players returning, it's nearly impossible to overcome and reach the levels anticipated. There is still talent at Mundelein, led by Division I prospect Sean O'Brien, but a 20-win season is more realistic than the potential 28-30 win season the Mustangs may have enjoyed with a healthy Knar.
De La Salle. When the 2011-2012 school year ended in June, De La Salle was forecasted as a preseason top top five team for the 2012-2013 season. The perimeter was going to feature a talented and veteran group in Division I prospect Alvin Ellis, shooter Marcus White and tough-minded Demarcus Richardson. The frontcourt would be anchored by the Division I tandem of 6-7 Alex Foster and 6-8 Gavin Schilling, with 6-8 Justin Earls coming along behind them. Now Foster (now at Seton), Schilling (Findlay Prep) and Richardson (Curie) are elsewhere, leaving coach Tom White's club a marginal top 25 team. What a difference three months makes.
Warren. There will certainly be a different look at this power-packed program. The last two years the Blue Devils won a whopping 57 games, including a state runner-up finish in 2011 and back-to-back North Suburban Lake titles (23-1 in two years). Over the past eight seasons Warren has averaged 24 wins a year under coach Chuck Ramsey. This year? You better believe North Suburban Lake rivals are licking their chops. Ramsey has stepped down as coach after two stellar decades as head coach and is now the head coach at College of Lake County. And the cupboard is as bare as it's been in years. Warren graduated all five starters from a year ago. The good news is Warren hired a solid young coach in 32-year-old Ryan Webber, who guided Moline to a 23-9 season a year ago and has a 142-63 record in seven seasons (four at Moline and three at Byron).
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