By: Luke Drase
Since Mike Ellis took charge of the Evanston basketball program in 2010, the Wildkits have had one of their best runs in program history.
In his seven seasons thus far, Coach Ellis has led Evanston to five regional titles (including four straight), two sectional championships, and three straight CSL South titles in a conference that includes the likes of New Trier, Maine South, and Niles North as of last year.
Evanston is coming off arguably their best season under Coach Ellis, as the Wildkits went 28-4, with two of those losses coming against out of state competition, and a super sectional loss to the eventual 4A champions Whitney Young.
“It was a great group of seniors that we had with us on the varsity team for three years straight, and Nojel (Eastern) four years straight.” said Ellis.
“They were part of a special group that won three conference championships in a row, four regional titles in a row and the sectional title.”
This season, Evanston will have to cope with the loss of four important seniors in Elyjah Williams, Malcolm Townsel, Chris Hamil, and of course Nojel Eastern who now plays for Purdue.
“One, it’s a lot of size walking out the door, we have to find a way to replace those four key seniors that were instrumental in every game we won,” said Ellis.
“So now it’s an opportunity, that’s how we’re looking at it. It’s a opportunity for guys to see how it was done and try to bring their skills and talents to the court so we can be successful again.”
Players that will be looking to take the next step are junior guards in Jaheim Holden, Lance Jones, and Ryan Bost, who played with the varsity last year as Sophomores.
The trio have all the talent that people are accustomed to seeing at Evanston, but there will be an adjustment period as the three guards will now be the focal point of opposing teams scouting plans.
“We’re very fortunate to have those three guys. Any one of them are capable of getting hot on any particular night. To be able to have that flexibility and also have the unselfishness of being able to concede to that other player is great,” said Ellis.
“This will be the first year where opposing teams are going to be in the locker room saying we need to stop Jaheim, Lance and Ryan. So it will be a different battle for those guys and I’m looking forward to what those guys bring to each and every game.”
Joining the three junior guards are senior center Matt Hall, who Coach Ellis expects to have a breakout year, along with complimentary pieces in Reggie Henley and Harry Porter.
Evanston also has four freshman practicing up with the varsity who have more then held their own thus far, and according to Coach Ellis, it is sometimes tough to tell who is a freshman and who is a junior.
The constant influx of varsity ready talent is a testament to the culture of Evanston basketball and the community as a whole.
“You know, first and foremost it’s the community. This community they really support the growth and development of our student athletes.” said Ellis when asked how Evanston is able to reload year after year.
“There’s a lot of people that care about the right things. So when we receive these Freshman, we can start talking Xs and Os and not spend so much time on character and values. Then there’s the competition aspect, you come into a school like Evanston, it demands success on and off the court and the one key word about it is accountability.”
Even though the talent is still there for Evanston, the main issue for the Wildkits this season will be that accountability factor.
Without the safety net of seniors who led by example such Eastern and Williams, Evanston will be searching for a player who possesses that one intangible leadership trait.
“We actually just met with a player last night about that. Leadership is going to be key. It’s not just a matter of you making sure you do these things, it’s making sure we all do these things,” said Ellis.
“I’m anxious to see their growth and development where they think beyond their jersey. Not just in games but even off the court. I think that’s going to be a key part to our success, is that chemistry and unity.”
In order to win their fourth straight conference title, Evanston will have to navigate the a brutal schedule that features Maine South, New Trier and Niles North, who was recently ranked the sixth best team in the state by Michael O’Brien of the Chicago Sun Times.(https://www.suntimeshighschoolsports.com/2017/11/14/no-shot-clock-podcast-2/)
But even while losing four seniors and facing some of the toughest suburban competition, Evanston will always be a factor during conference season and playoff time, even if they aren’t teams number one opponent anymore.
“I think the key is the target’s no longer on our back. Well, I dont know if that’s a key but I know that it’s not necessarily on us anymore,” joked Ellis.
“I think people are looking at Niles North as the team to beat. New Trier with their size in (Ciaran) Brayboy and (Spencer) Boehm, I wouldn’t sleep on them either and Maine South’s program and Coach Lavorato’s system is as good as there is. Hopefully we can take a break from getting’s everybody A game every Friday night but we still have to be good enough to beat whatever game they bring.”
Evanston will put their new lineup to the test straight away as they will play in a tricky Thanksgiving tournament at St. Viator. The Wildkits first game will be against Highland Park on Nov. 20.