John Cheng is an Asian-American who loves to compete in sports but has never forgotten that academics are most important.
"Sports are fun unless you are good enough to be a professional," he said. "But good grades will carry you into the future."
Cheng enrolled at Immaculate Conception in Elmhurst, located four blocks from his home, because it is a Catholic school and his parents wanted him to obtain a Catholic education and learn about the church.
Then came grades. He has a 3.83 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale in honors classes and wants to major in finance or business in college.
Then came sports. He wants to play basketball in college. It is his favorite sport and he has been playing the game since second grade. He played football in elementary school, golf as a freshman and sophomore and baseball for all four years.
But playing basketball at IC wasn't a priority. He was aware that the program wasn't very good. Last year's team was 12-16. The Knights' won regional championships in 2007 and 2008, their first in over 20 years, but have produced only two winning teams since 1985.
"I didn't think much about the basketball program when I was a
freshman," Cheng said. "I just wanted to play. Now I want to be the one (of a
team) to win a conference title for the first time and go as far in the
state tournament as we can go.
"Being on the varsity, it becomes more serious. You think more about what you want to do in the postseason, to be the first one to go far in the state playoff. As sophomores, we were 23-4 and were conference champions. We felt we could do it at the varsity level.
"But we took a step back last year. We underachieved. We had a tough schedule. We found out a lot about ourselves. Our team chemistry was weak. Some kids didn't get along with each other. But this year is different. The kids get along. We're good friends. Everybody shares the ball. We push each other.
"Some people are surprised by our record. But we expected it. We went into the season knowing we could have a pretty good record. We are quick and fast break a lot. We aren't tall or big but we're quick. We like to push the ball up the court and keep our opponents off balance."
IC won its first 12 games before losing to Nazareth. Last week, the Knights' trounced Lisle 66-48, Walther Lutheran 69-47 and Luther North 48-30. On Tuesday, however, they lost to Aurora Christian (13-4) by a 73-39 margin. They'll meet Elgin St. Edward on Thursday, then host Montini on Jan. 27.
Even coach Darren Howard is surprised by his team's success. "I thought we'd be good. I knew I had a solid group. They were 23-4 as sophomores. But they are playing better than I thought they would. They have great chemistry, no egos and they practice hard," he said.
"A huge part is they are basketball kids. At a small school, you get athletes who play multiple sports. Usually you have football players who also play basketball. But this year I have basketball players. Every year they program and the numbers have gotten better and the kids take basketball more seriously."
In his 12th year, Howard hasn't known much success. Despite two regional titles, his first 11 teams won only 38 percent (118-193) of their games. IC was 1-25 and 1-26 in the years prior to Howard's arrival.
"Basketball fell off the map. IC has been a football school with (former coach) Jack Lewis. I was the fourth basketball coach in four years when I got the job," Howard said. "Now we have consistency and stability. We finally are at the breaking-through point where we will be good for a few years."
Cheng also sees the light at the end of the tunnel. "We have a lot of basketball players. Most of us don't play fall sports. We have a lot of time to work on our game. Our team chemistry is strong. We get along very well," he said.
Cheng, a 6-foot-1 senior point guard, is the team leader. He averages 15 points, 4.8 assists and 4.9 rebounds per game. Brian Harvey, a 6-foot-2 senior (14.2 ppg, 8 rpg), had 20 points and 14 rebounds against Lisle. Demetrius Carr, a 6-foot-2 junior (15.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.5 assists), is a transfer from St. Joseph. Dan Ribando (8.9 ppg, 4.8 rpg) is a 6-foot-4 senior. Jason Dunn (3 ppg, 2.5 rpg) is a 5-foot-10 senior.
They are supported by 6-foot-1 junior Adam Muellers (4 ppg, 3 rpg) and
6-foot-4 senior Mike Lestina (3.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg).
"We have nine seniors but only one returning starter (Harvey). We play good man-to-man defense. Our kids like to play defense. And it's hard to find kids who like to play defense. But our biggest strength is team chemistry. There is no in-fighting. Our kids get along. And that's very rare," the coach said.
A Weber graduate of 1983, Howard played for Jim Harrington. He coached all levels at Fenton for seven years before coming to Immaculate Conception in 2000. He also serves as the school's athletic director.
"We are much better in the open court than the half-court at the moment," Howard said. "If teams take away our fast break, we must do better in the half-court. Depth could be an issue if two of our top three players get into foul trouble. And lack of size (his tallest player is 6-4) can be a problem if we play somebody big. Nazareth has a seven-foot, 280-pound freshman who had 20 points and seven rebounds against us.
"But balance is our strength. We don't care who scores points. We haven't won a conference title since 1967 and we've never won a sectional. Those are huge goals for us."
In 2007, IC lost to North Lawndale in the sectional final, the farthest the school has ever been in the state tournament. North Lawndale went on to finish second in the state. In 2008, the Knights' lost to St. Anne in the sectional semifinal as St. Anne went on to win the Class 1A championship.
"We are taking baby steps to this point," Howard said. "It takes time to build a program and change an attitude. The administration has given me time to do it. On paper, last year's 12-16 record doesn't look like a good season but it was a significant building block.
"We usually had one or two good players each season but they were football kids who also played basketball. But each year we get more basketball-minded kids. Basketball kids play basketball twothirds of the year while football kids are in the weight room and playing 7-on-7. Football is their first priority.
"Now these kids are more basketball-minded. They go to shooting camps and point guard and big man camps and play AAU in the spring, summer and fall. At the end of the year, you look for what kind of experience the kids had. Every year it has grown more and more to the point where 60 kids came out for basketball this year. We had to make cuts for the first time. People see the improvement. It is more than just a win-loss record. These kids expect to win this year."