In his first year as head coach at Wheaton St. Francis, Bob Ward thought he had the best of all worlds. After teaching history for 35 years and coaching at Round Lake, Spring Valley, Lake Zurich and Wheaton North, he was eager to accept a coaching-only assignment for the first time.
"I retired from teaching in June but I still wanted to coach in some capacity," Ward said. "I took this job in May. It has been a revelation. I always dreamed of just coaching, not lecturing in history class. But I wasn't sure what I was walking into."
Wheaton St. Francis has a reputation as a football school. Coach Greg Purnell produced a state champion in 2008. Mike Harper had a successful basketball program for 23 years, winning five regional titles and finishing fourth in Class A in 1989. But that was the school's only sectional winner.
"They always had a good program under Mike Harper," Ward said. "But in all the scouting I did, I never saw St. Francis. We didn't play them. I only knew of one kid, Ryan Coyle, a three-year player who started last year."
But Ward wasn't sure if Coyle would be able to play this season. The 6-foot-6 senior was hampered with a lower back problem last summer. In late July, after being cleared to play, he was undercut in an AAU game and suffered a broken collarbone and a concussion.
"He was out indefinitely," Ward said. "What we heard when it first happened was that he would miss the entire year of basketball. Then he gradually got better. He was struggling in the fall when school began. But then he came around."
On Friday night, in what Ward described as "my biggest win in coaching," Coyle scored 13 points, including a game-winning three-pointer with just over a minute to play as Wheaton St. Francis stunned top-seeded Orr 39-36 for the Class 3A regional championship at Wheaton Academy.
"We have tough kids but I had followed Orr during the year knowing that they would be in our sectional," Ward said. "I saw them on Tuesday and marveled how difficult they would be to guard. They were the best team we have played all year.
"But we told our kids that we have played De La Salle, Bogan and St. Viator, all highly rated Class 4A teams. In those games, we came back and weren't intimidated."
Coyle wasn't the only starter who was missing in action during the summer. Nick Donati, a 6-foot senior point guard who played quarterback on the football team, was sidelined with a bum shoulder.
"I didn't see them in the summer," Ward said. "To their credit, they never missed a day of camp or a summer game. I had a good idea of the character of these guys who would be our leaders.
"At camp in late May, I noticed these kids took coaching pretty well and they defended well in man-to-man defense. Honestly, I wasn't optimistic or pessimistic. I didn't know how good they would be. But we won the Batavia tournament against Class 4A teams to start the year. That boded well for us. They jelled as the season went along."
Ward was further encouraged by his team's 2-2 showing at the York Holiday Tournament. We played a lot of Class 4A teams and that has helped us."
So Wheaton St. Francis will carry a 19-7 record into Tuesday night's sectional against Crane at Glenbard South.
Ward will start Coyle (16 PPG, 8 RPG), Donati (8 PPG, 4 assists, 5 RPG), 6-foot-3 senior Brian Spahn (9 PPG), 6-foot-7 senior Zach Roswold (6 PPG, 4 RPG) and Andrew Kimball (6 PPG), who missed the last two games with illness but scored 18 and 19 points in two earlier games. Kimball is due to return for Tuesday's game.
Tim Zettinger, a 6-foot-2 junior, and Jason Pisarski, a 6-foot-3 junior, provide spark off the bench.
"To keep winning, we must prepare well and maintain our confidence, as we were for Orr," Ward said. "Our kids aren't overly loose or cocky. They are playing their best basketball of the season right now."