By Roy & Harv Schmidt
It is that time of year again--time to reach into our grab bag and name the recipients of our postseason awards with respect to everything concerning Illinois high school basketball. As is usually the case, some of our award winners are obvious choices, while others are not so cut and dry. Therefore, without any further adieu, here goes.
Honorary Coaching Award: Mike Flaherty-Mt. Carmel
First of all, it is not our intention to downplay the outstanding job turned in by Mt. Carmel's Mike Flaherty, particulary the run that his team enjoyed in this year's class 4A state tournament, knocking off four state-ranked teams in St. Ignatius, Farragut, De LaSalle and Whitney Young. However, after much deliberation we decided to eliminate Flaherty from consideration for this award and instead pay him the ultimate measure of respect. The reason is because simply put Flaherty is the best high school basketball coach in the state. He has been displaying his coaching wizardry on the sidelines for the past 25 plus years and has won everywhere he has coached at, including Mendel Catholic, Thornridge and now Mt. Carmel. The most amazing thing is that while St. Joseph's Gene Pingatore and Rockford Boylan's Steve Goers are the winningest active high school basketball coaches in the state, each with over 800 career victories, Flaherty is younger than either of them and therefore is capable of overtaking them and even becoming the winningest high school basketball coach in state history. We would not bet against him doing it.
Coach Of The Year: Lewis Thorpe-North Lawndale
There were several worthy candidates, but no other coach in the state had to battle the degree of adversity that Lewis Thorpe was faced with all season long. North Lawndale's most talented player, 6'0 junior guard John Taylor, was ineligible for most of the season after transferring from Lew Wallace High School in Gary, IN. The death of a close friend and classmate just before the state finals in Peoria, and other players battling academic ineligibility throughout the year were just some of the other setbacks. But through it all, Thorpe's team united and became even stronger. The results say it all--a share of the Chicago Public League Red-Northwest Section championship (one of the toughest high school basketball conferences in the state)--and finally the ultimate prize--a class 2A state championship. To take it one step further, the best may still be yet to come, as North Lawndale returns virtually every key player next season and stands a good chance of being ranked the preseason #1 team in the Chicago area regardless of class.
Honorable Mention Coaches Of The Year: (In Alphabetical Order)
Class 4A Player Of The Year: Kevin Dillard 6'0 Sr. PG Homewood Flossmoor
No other player in the state had a more productive season from start to finish than Dillard and as we have said on numerous occassions, no one meant more to the success of his team. Dillard was the leader of a team that was ranked #1 in the Chicago area for most of the second half of the season, with H-F's only two losses coming to Whitney Young in the championship of the Proviso West Tournament and to Bloom (on Bloom's home court) in the Class 4A sectional. As a result, he was named the Chicago Sun-Times Player Of The Year. The bottom line is that there isn't a better pure point guard in Illinois, which explains why Dillard is an absolute recruiting steal for Chris Lowery and Southern Illinois.
Class 3A Player Of The Year: Lewis Jackson 5'9 Sr. PG Decatur Eisenhower
Jackson was the leader and catalyst of a team that was ranked #1 in the state in class 3A for virtually the entire season and undefeated until losing to Champaign Central in the class 3A sectional final in Springfield. He reminds of a cross between two outstanding guards who both starred at Crane High School, as he has the upper body strength and physical toughness of Will Bynum and the explosiveness, ballhandling skills and one-on-one ability of Sherron Collins. He is also tenacious defensively, and when you consider everything that he brings to the table, we would go to war with him any day of the week. At the beginning of the season it was believed by many that Jackson would be an academic casualty, but he has since gotten his grades in order. With that being said, we look for him to be an immediate impact player from day one for Matt Painter and Purdue.
Best College Prospect Regardless Of Class: Jereme Richmond 6'6 So. WF ???
Despite all of the problems that Richmond encountered this past season, we still firmly believe that he is the most naturally talented player in the state and therefore the best college prospect. Richmond's level of versatility is amazing. He can score either facing up or with his back to the basket, is highly athletic, can handle the ball and is strong on the glass. There is no questioning his basketball skills. What he now needs to do is grow up and prove to himself (in addition to everyone else) that he can accept authority, especially when it comes from an adult. While most other players will look to enhance their stock with their play on the travel team circuit this spring and summer, Richmond's progress during that time will undoubtedly be determined by how well he deals with things off the court. It is for those reasons that we actually would like to see him remain at Waukegan.
Best Underclassman Based On High School Performance: Donivine Stewart 5'10 Fr. PG Bartonville Limestone
This award was the toughest one to call, but we give the nod to Stewart primarily because of the outstanding numbers that he put up all season long despite only being a freshman in high school. Two of his best performances this season were a 45 point outburst vs. class 3A third place finisher Washington and a 32 point effort vs. Peoria Central. It goes without saying that Stewart knows how to score and he takes it upon himself to do so. Not only that, but he plays with the utmost confidence and seems to feel no pressure. We first noticed Stewart when he was in 7th grade and playing at a local exposure showcase. At that time we said that he was going to be an absolute stud. All of this explains why Stewart has already been offered a scholarship by the University Of Illinois. The scariest part is that while Stewart may have been the best freshman in the state this past season based on performance, when it is all said and done we do not believe that he will wind up as the top college prospect from the class of 2011. That is not an indictment of Stewart whatsoever--it is more of an indication of how strong the 2011 class in Illinois is at the top. Rich South sophomore Crandall Head and Warren junior Brandon Paul (both University Of Illinois commits) were also strong contenders for this award.
Biggest Dow Jonesers (Stock Raisers):
Jack Cooley 6'9 Jr. PF Glenbrook South
Lenzelle Smith 6'3 So. 2G Zion-Benton
Dyricus Simms-Edwards 6'1 Jr. PG Washington
Hopefully this doesn't sound like a copout, but in the end this one was so close that we had to make it a three way tie. We have no doubt that had Cooley played on a team with a winning record that he would have been a first team all-state selection. The amount of improvement that Cooley has shown over the course of the last year has been astronomical, and it ultimately resulted in him accepting a scholarship to attend the University Of Notre Dame.
Smith, meanwhile, was spectacular throughout the course of the state tournament and is the fastest-rising player in Illinois from the class of 2010. He now clearly ranks as the #3 prospect in that class behind Jereme Richmond and Crandall Head. Edwards has been one of the most talked about players in the Peoria area all season long and has proven to be more than worthy of the hype. We believe that he is the best college prospect on Washington's team (ahead of Indiana-bound Matt Roth) and that he now ranks among the top five prospects in the state from the class of 2009.
Team Of The Year: Chicago Marshall (Class 3A State Champions)
This one is a no-brainer. We said at the beginning of the season that Marshall had as much talent from top to bottom as any team in the state, which is why we ranked them as the #2 team in the state in our preseason rankings. As it turns out, they are #1. This team also overcame tremendous adversity, as just prior to the start of the season several of Marshall's players staged an after school rally in support of former coach Lamont Bryant, who was fired from that position. While they remained loyal to Bryant, they came together under new coach Courtney Hargrays and played every game as if they were on a mission. That in large part explains why they came away with the class 3A state championship. 6'4 senior Ryan Hare showed tremendous leadership and 6'2 junior Darius Smith, who is Marshall's best all-around player, was also quite solid. The Commandos have been to the state finals the past three seasons, and with a solid nucleus returning next season, led by Smith, 6'5 Eriq Harris and 6'2 Deon Stamps, there is a good possibility that they could make it four in a row.
Overall, it was a most interesting high school basketball season, especially with the advent of the four class system, which will continue to be debated for quite a while. It is now time for us to turn our attention to high school basketball's second season--the traveling team and AAU season.