Brian Nelms is a 5-foot-9 senior point guard at Rolling Meadows who isn't ranked among the top 100 players in the nation and doesn't have scholarship offers to Kentucky, Kansas or North Carolina.
But, take coach Kevin Katovich's word as gospel, Nelms is a "special type of kid." He is very intelligent and highly motivated and likely will make some Division III coach very happy.
As a freshman on the varsity, in a win or lose situation, Nelms commanded such confidence from his coach and teammates that he was allowed to take a three-point shot in the closing seconds of a game.
He missed. His team lost.
Afterward, he shoveled about three inches of snow off his driveway and shot hoops for an hour in the dark.
"The first thing I did was walk to the spot where I had missed the shot, the right corner," Nelms recalled. "I took about 30 or 40 shots from there. The worst part is I was making them. I asked myself: Why couldn't I do it two hours ago?
"It was senior night. Having a chance to win the game and not being able to convert, it hurt pretty bad. It was painful. It would have been a nice way to send the seniors out.
"It meant a lot to me, having the confidence to give me the ball in that situation. I have been fortunate enough to hit some big shots since then. But it took me awhile to figure out what good could come of it. Then I realized it happens to everybody. Even the pros miss game-winners."
Nelms has made more game-defining shots than he has missed. "I was able to deal with myself missing the shot. I still want the ball in my hands at the end of a game," he said.
Later in his sophomore year, with Rolling Meadows trailing Elk Grove by three points with four seconds to play and having to go the length of the court, Nelms couldn't deliver the ball to a teammate in the corner so he came off a ball screen and buried a fadeaway three-pointer to force double overtime.
Last year, he drained a game-winning shot from two steps inside half-court to beat Glenbrook South.
Nelms is averaging 15 points and eight assists for a 14-6 team that clinched a tie for its first division title in the Mid-Suburban League since 2005 by beating Buffalo Grove 60-51 last Friday. Now the Mustangs are eager to claim their first conference title since 1991 and first regional title since 2001.
Nelms, the school's all-time assist leader, had 19 points and 12 assists in the victory over Buffalo Grove. On Saturday, he had 15 points and 10 assists as Rolling Meadows beat Niles West 59-45. The Mustangs will meet Barrington on Tuesday, Wheeling on Friday and Leyden on Saturday.
Rolling Meadows isn't a mecca for high school basketball. Since 1971, only one of five coaches has posted a winning record. In five years, Hank Szymanski won three regional titles. But the school has qualified for the state quarterfinals only once, in 1990 when Dave Brown's team went 28-3.
"It's a matter of numbers. We are the smallest school in District 214 and we have trouble getting kids out for basketball," said Katovich, who is in his 10th year as head coach.
"Winning helps. We're drawing more kids. We were 15-13 last year and had four starters back. We're drawing more interest in the program. We try to keep our kids working on their skills. Losing isn't fun."
Katovich and his staff work with other coaches at the school to encourage athletes to participate in more than one sport. Only two of Katovich's 17 players compete in basketball only. Several of them play in three sports.
And they constantly remind their players of former Rolling Meadows star Aaron Williams, the only NBA player ever produced at the school. Williams, a 1989 graduate, played with 10 teams during a 15-year professional career. He currently is an assistant coach at his alma mater, Xavier University.
"We talk about him a lot, a successful alum. We work at it as a big picture thing," Katovich said. "Most of these kids have been on the varsity for three years. They want to do something the school hasn't done in a long time. They want to leave a mark for themselves and the basketball program."
Nelms and his teammates are reminded of the school's futility on the basketball court every time they walk past the trophy case. "Given our past, we usually surprise people. We don't get publicity or make opponents fear us because we aren't a known program. So we try to prove people wrong all the time," he said.
"We were picked to finish second or third in our division but no one picked us to win. We want to leave our own legacy for people who come in after us. There is a plaque in our team room that says: 'Play hard, play smart and play together.' That's what drives us."
Underneath the plaque are a set of numbers that are a source of motivation and inspiration, numbers that remind each player--as if they need to be reminded--of the last time the school won a division or regional title.
Katovich is familiar with the school's basketball history. A 1989 graduate of nearby Conant in Hoffman Estates, he played and later coached under Tom McCormack. He also worked for ATT. But he liked being around kids and obtained a masters degree in education.
"Coaching drove me into it," said Katovich, who coached at Prospect for four year before arriving at Rolling Meadows in 2001. "Other coaches convinced me that was what I wanted to do."
Nelms is more than a basketball player. He ranks in the top 23 percent of his class, has a 4.6 grade-point average on a 5.0 scale, scored 31 on his ACT and is looking to play basketball at Division III Augustana, Lake Forest, Illinois Wesleyan or DePaul or Division II Hillsdale.
Other starters are 6-foot-3 senior Tyler Gaedele (15 ppg), who is second in the area in three-pointers and whose brother Kyle plays for the San Diego Padres; 6-foot-3 senior Mike Rose (10 ppg, 10 rpg), who was a freshman B player at one time; 6-foot-3 junior Mike Dolan (8 ppg); and 5-foot-10 senior Eric Lowe (4 ppg), a defensive stopper who is committed to play baseball at Villanova, or 5-foot-9 senior Mike Olson (5 ppg). Rose scored 17 points in Rolling Meadows' victory over Niles West on Saturday.
Coming off the bench are 5-foot-6 senior Chuck Lynk, 5-foot-9 senior John Ott and 6-foot-3 junior Brian Sabal.
To advance in the Class 4A sectional at Barrington where Warren likely will be the top seed, Katovich said: "We need to get back to what makes us a good team--sharing the basketball, rebounding and playing good defense. This is an exciting time for the basketball program. There is a buzz around the school."
Nelms and his teammates hear the buzz. They are a close-knit group that spends a lot of time in the weight room, on the basketball court and around the dinner table. Each week, before a Friday game, they gather at the house of one of the players for a pasta party.
Mike Olson's mother is a favorite. "She is a great cook," Nelms said after feasting on lasagna, salad, chocolate chip cookies and "some of the best breadsticks I've ever had."
Nelms is as superstitious as he is a food critic. He wears No. 11 because Isiah Thomas, Dee Brown and Drew Neitzel once wore it. He asked for the jersey in sixth grade and has stuck with it.
"I have a long list of superstitions," he said. "I wear the same pair of compression shorts and the same socks for every game. I listen to the same song. I'm huge on static guard. I spray it on my clothes and uniform before games.
"And I eat the same meal lunch--chicken and cheese sandwich on white bread, yogurt, oat meal, pretzels and lots of water and Gatorade. I tried it once and scored 28 points. I said it must be the food. So I've had the same lunch ever since."
It beats shoveling snow off the driveway.