By Taylor Bell
A year ago, Steven Cook averaged eight points per game as a junior starter on a senior-dominated New Trier team that finished 23-5 and lost to arch-rival Evanston in the sectional semifinal.
"It wasn't a bummer but it was a bit of a disappointment," Cook said. "We got off to a great start, like this year. We were 16-2 and were ranked high in the ratings.
"But we didn't finish well. We lost three in a row, dropped out of contention for the conference title, then lost to Evanston in overtime at Northwestern and in the sectional semifinal. From the fall, we talked about playing in the supersectional. But we didn't get there."
Sometime after the season -- Cook isn't sure when -- coach Scott Fricke delivered a message. "You'll have to do a lot next year," he said.
Cook understood. "I knew I would be the man this year. My teammates helped me to fit into the role. Yes, there is pressure. Even in the summer, I was guarded by the other team's best player. Other teams focused on me. They put a box-and-one on me. I am expected to do a lot for this team," he said.
The 6-foot-4 Princeton-bound senior has delivered. He is averaging 17 points and eight rebounds for a 20-4 team that could be the best the Winnetka school has produced since Rick Malnati's 25-8 squad finished fourth in the Class AA tournament in 2002.
The Trevians, who defeated Glenbrook South 58-51 last Friday, will carry a seven-game winning streak into Friday's game at Waukegan. Then they'll have tests against St. Viator, Evanston and Maine South.
"I'm pleasantly surprised," Fricke said. "We had a good summer. We've done a lot to get better. I'm pleased with our progress. It is really a typical New Trier team. They play well together, play good defense, hustle, play hard all the time and are competitive."
New Trier lost its top three players from a year ago -- Connor Boehm (to Dartmouth), Austin Angel (to Illinois-Chicago) and point guard David Bragiel. But Fricke was encouraged by the return of a senior class that had been successful since it enrolled as freshmen.
"We were bringing back a lot of kids without much varsity experience," the coach said. "In fact, the majority had hardly played varsity basketball at all. Could we play at that speed and against the kind of competition we play against? We were throwing them into the fire right away."
The guard-oriented Trevians have handled the heat. "We like to push the tempo a little bit, more than in the past. This team can go up and down with quicker teams in the state but it also can play half-court if we want to," Fricke said.
Cook is surrounded by 5-foot-10 senior point guard Reid Berman (7 ppg, 7 assists), 5-foot-9 junior Jordan Thomas (10 ppg), 6-foot-2 senior Stas Banas (8 ppg) and 6-foot-8 Aaron Angel (5 ppg, 4 rpg), Austin's brother. Aaron Rosen (8 ppg), a 6-foot-4 senior, comes off the bench.
"How far can we go? I'm optimistic. We can compete with anyone. But we have to guard size and rebound against bigger, more athletic teams. In the Rockford tournament, we held three teams under 40 points. That's the kind of thing we have to continue to do if we're going to be successful."
Cook was the MVP at the Rockford tournament. Versatile and athletic, he defends point guards and centers. "He is being asked to do more this year and he is doing it. He gets better every week. He is on a streak. He is so explosive. I think he has the record for most dunks in school history," Fricke said.
Cook boasts a lot of impressive numbers. He is a straight-A student in Advance Placement courses who scored 32 on his ACT. He ranks in the top 5 percent of his class with a 4.93 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale. He wants to major in economics at Princeton.
Why Princeton? "It was a no-brainer," he said. It happened early in the recruiting process. He attended several camps between his sophomore and junior years, trying to get exposure. He attracted interest from Ivy League and Patriot League schools. But he loved Princeton and committed a Christmas of his junior year.
Cook, who was coached by his father when he was young, played all sports at one time but began to concentrate on basketball in high school. "In baseball, you can't contribute as much as in basketball. If you strike out, you have to wait a couple of innings to get another chance. And I like the energy and comradery of playing a team sport," he said.
A year ago, as a junior on a senior-oriented team, he had to find different ways to contribute. And he wasn't asked to contribute as much as Boehm, an All-Stater, usually dominated the game. But his role has changed this year.
"My goal in every game is to get a double-double," said Cook, who also is expected to provide leadership. "This team has been playing together since sixth grade. We have all the tools to be successful...big men, rebounding, scoring, excellent point guard, role players who step in and do what it takes to win.
"I don't see why we can't make a run in the playoff. What is our edge? It all starts on the defensive end. When we have been successful in the past, it always started with defense. That's what gives us an edge in a lot of games."