Connor Boehm, the 6-foot-7, 235-pound mover and shaker on New Trier's basketball team, played baseball until his freshman year. Then he realized that he had fun on a basketball court, that basketball was his future, that he wanted to mix basketball and academics in college.
"I didn't like baseball," Boehm said. "If you strike out, you don't get another at-bat for two or three innings. In basketball, if you miss a shot, you might get another one the next time down the floor. It was frustrating in baseball. Two strikeouts and your day is done. In basketball, there are a lot of other things you can do to redeem yourself."
New Trier coach Scott Fricke has the same philosophy as he prepares his team for the Proviso West Holiday Tournament. The Trevians are 10-1 after beating Fenwick 62-57 on Tuesday in the opening round. Boehm scored 17 points while point guard David Bragiel had 18 and Steven Cook 15.
"We take the Proviso West tournament as an early state tournament," Fricke said. "It is unforgiving. You make or miss one shot and it is the difference between winning one game or three games. You play a good team in every game. It is time to gauge ourselves at this point.
"Where are we at? Where do we need to get to in order to play well in the real state tournament? Proviso West is a state tournament in December. But if you lose, the season isn't over. Now you play against great players and great size. Can we match up to a great team?"
Boehm is looking to answer those questions, too. His role has changed every year at New Trier. As a sophomore on a 22-4 team, he was a grinder who scrapped for offensive rebounds and dived for loose balls on the floor. Last year, on a 15-11 team, he was asked to score a lot and averaged 20 points per game. This year? Whether he likes it or not, this is his team.
"He is banging down low and we also want him to get assists, to kick the ball back to the guards," Fricke said. "It doesn't bother him that his scoring average has dipped a bit (17 ppg). All he cares about is winning. He also has developed his perimeter game. He averages one three-pointer a game. We have plays for him to shoot from the outside."
Recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye like what they see in Boehm and the New Trier team.
"Connor Boehm personifies the blue-collar type of player who brings his lunch bucket to work every day and simply does his job," Harv Schmidt said. "He has a strong frame and good hands, both of which he utilizes well around the basket. As a result, he is a consistent scorer with his back to the basket and is strong on the glass.
"New Trier is yet another team that knows how to utilize its strengths and exploit its opponent's weaknesses. They have a little bit of everything -- strong post play with Connor Boehm, an athletic open-court player in Austin Angel and others who are good shooters from the perimeter and play hard-nosed defense. New Trier is right there with Warren as the premier team in Chicago's north suburbs."
The Trevians' only loss was to Warren 64-46 on Dec. 3. "Warren's size was too much for us. They killed us on the boards," Fricke said. Boehm was limited to 10 points and five rebounds. But, as is the case with the Proviso West tournament, one loss in December isn't a season-ender. "But it means there are things we can improve on," Boehm said.
"We can really be dangerous," Boehm said. "We have a combination of good guards and good shooters and I have to do what I need to do down low. We aren't the biggest team but I'm the biggest player on the team so the responsibility falls to me to do the dirty work, to hit the offensive boards and get defensive rebounds."
Coming off last season, he knew he had to put on weight and get a lot stronger if he was going to dominate under the boards or hold his own against more athletic opponents. It is his senior year and he desperately wants to win the sectional championship, New Trier's first since 2005.
Boehm is surrounded by 6-foot-4 senior Austin Angel (14 ppg), 5-foot-10 senior point guard David Bragiel (five points per game, four assists), 6-foot-4 junior Steven Cook (10
points per game) and 5-foot-10 junior Reid Berman (six points per game). The bench is headed by 5-foot-10 sophomore Jordan Thomas and 6-foot-8 junior Aaron Angel, Austin's brother.
Austin Angel missed most of last season after undergoing emergency surgery for a ruptured appendix after the third game. He came back for the state tournament but never got into playing shape. Now he is back and healthy. He scored 24 points against Niles West.
Bragiel has good bloodlines. His grandfather, Jim Bragiel, played at Morton and Northwestern. "He doesn't get mentioned very much. But he has the heart of a champion. We aren't the same team when he isn't on the floor. He holds our team together. We can't play without him," Fricke said.
Fricke, a 1989 graduate of Riverside-Brookfield, is in his fourth year as head coach at New Trier. He coached at Sycamore and Fenwick before landing at the Winnetka school, becoming Mel Sheets' freshman coach in 1995. It was Sheets' last year and Fricke joined new coach Rick Malnati's staff. When Malnati left, he was selected over a field that included some high-profile state championship coaches.
"I knew the New Trier system. I learned from Sheets and Malnati," he said. "It was a smooth transition. When Rick left, the program was in good shape. I'm continuing to do a lot of the same things. But you can't run the same system year after year."
Fricke changed the offense, preferring a Princeton-style approach to make better use of his players' talent. "We will run the system that gives our kids the best chance to succeed. This year, we have a lot of good guards so I changed the offense to four outside and one inside," he said.
He believes his current squad compares favorably to Malnati's 25-8 team that finished fourth in the 2002 state tournament and the 22-4 team of two years ago that featured Alex Rossi and Fred Helbring.
"We have a lot of poise. Nothing rattles them," Fricke said. "We have enough firepower to play different styles, fast-paced or slow down. We can execute in half-court or take advantage of Boehm's size and our outside shooting. We are well-rounded an versatile."
To prepare for this season, Boehm went into the weight room and added 20 pounds of muscle. He knew he couldn't be the fastest or most agile player on the floor but he could be the strongest. "There were times last year where an extra push would have been helpful," he said.
At the same time, he put his academic portfolio in order. Education is very important to him. One brother is at Bucknell, another at Harvard. He chose Dartmouth over Cal-Poly, Holy Cross and Lafayette.
"Dartmouth is the right fit for me. It has good academics and I will have a chance to get playing time as a freshman." Boehm said. "If I was 6-10 and could jump out of the gym, the NBA would be my ultimate goal. But I'm 6-foot-7 and can't jump out of the gym. Getting a good education is important to me."
So is closing his high school career on a high note, preferably a trip to Peoria in March with his teammates. To play, not to watch.
"The program has been successful in the past few years but we didn't go far in the playoff," Boehm said. "It is important to bring the team Downstate and farther. We have a lot of guards who can play and you need good guard play in the state tournament. They ignite everything. With good guard play comes good post play.
"I've been with these guys for two or three years. We carpool together. We have team dinners together. We all get along. I've heard the coach say: 'This is the hardest working team I've ever been around.' We have lots of guys who stay after practice to shoot. They care about the team."