'Terrific Trio' sparks North Chicago

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'Terrific Trio' sparks North Chicago

Jay Amos-Mays had a couple of huge Christmas wishes. It goes without saying that the No. 1 priority on his list for Santa Claus is the Class 3A championship in 2013, something that has eluded his North Chicago team for the last two years.

And the other wish? "Studio ear phones for the road trip to Peoria," he said.

North Chicago coach Gerald "King" Coleman has a New Year's resolution--to make history. He had a chance to make history in 1972. An All-State selection on coach Larry Hanzel's 26-2 team, Coleman had 24 points and 10 rebounds but North Chicago lost to Evanston 62-60 in the supersectional, one victory short of securing the school's first trip to the Elite Eight.

Now Coleman, in his eighth season as head coach at his alma mater, has another chance to make history. After qualifying for the Sweet Sixteen in four of the last five years, after finishing fourth in Class 3A in 2011 and second in Class 3A last year, his Warhawks are seeking their third consecutive trip to Peoria--and their first state championship.

"Potentially, this team can be very good. It has three Division I players," Coleman said. "A lot of people want to compare them to last year's team (that was 25-7 and finished second in Class 3A). But there is no comparison. This team has much more talent.

"But last year's team had been together since sixth grade. They were so much closer. And they had Aaron Simpson, who averaged 25 points per game and was our leader on the court. We haven't had a leader step up yet. The hunger isn't there yet. Last year, we knew the ball had to go to Simpson when we had to score. Who gets the ball this year?"

North Chicago might still be a reconstruction project in progress but the Warhawks answered most if not all of their coach's questions while winning the State Farm Classic last week in Bloomington. They boosted their record to 14-1 by sweeping Chillicothe IVC 63-49, Rockton Hononegah 81-79 in overtime, Peoria Notre Dame 62-56 and highly rated Rock Island 69-61.

Along the way, everybody got a look at North Chicago's "Terrific Trio," three multi-talented juniors who already are attracting considerable interest from Division I programs: 6-foot-3 JayQuan McCloud (19 ppg), 6-foot-4 Jay Amos-Mays (22 ppg) and 6-foot-4 Kurt Hall (17.5 ppg, 10 rpg).

Against IVC, Hall scored 28 points while Amos-Mays had 13, McCloud 12. Against Hononegah, Amos-Mays scored 25, Hall 19 and McCloud 15. Against Peoria Notre Dame, Amos-Mays scored 22, Hall 17. Against Rock Island, McCloud scored 32 while Hall had 11 points and 11 rebounds and Amos-Mays scored 10. Hall and Amos-Mays were named to the all-tournament team.

They are ably supported by 6-foot-3 senior Jarrod Coleman (12 ppg, 8 rpg), the coach's nephew, and 5-foot-10 junior Arnold Shead. Coleman, the only senior in the lineup, has been offered by Northwestern and Ohio University. Shead, a football star, broke Michael Turner's single-game rushing record with 338 yards.

North Chicago will resume its regular-season schedule against North Suburban Prairie rival Wauconda on Jan. 8, then will host Libertyville on Jan. 12.

"Once I get them to blend in as a team, they will be very successful," Coleman said. "They have made giant strides to reach that goal but they still are reaching out for it. The kids don't know each other that well yet. Once they realize the strong points and weak points in their teammates, they will be an awesome team.

"Our goal is to get to Peoria for the state final. We don't worry about tournaments or the conference. We want to work on things we aren't doing well...transition defense, playing together. I hope we are one unit on defense after the Christmas tournament. Our offense will take care of itself. We will score 80 to 90 points. But other teams score too easy on us. We must get a better grip on shutting teams down."

It has taken a while to get to know each other. McCloud is a native North Chicagoan. But Amos-Mays transferred from Zion-Benton after his sophomore year. He is just beginning to realize that his best sport is basketball, not football. And Hall moved in from Chicago as a freshman.

McCloud has been offered by Wright State. DePaul, Iowa, Northern Illinois, Colorado State, Eastern Kentucky and Indiana-Fort Wayne have expressed interest. Hall has interest from DePaul, Iowa, Indiana, Oregon State, Illinois State, Wichita State, Michigan and Michigan State but is holding out for an offer from his dream school, Kentucky. Amos-Mays, still debating between football and basketball, has basketball interest from DePaul, Iowa, Michigan State, Wright State and Xavier.

But they are juniors and still getting their feet wet. After starting 7-0, they lost to highly rated Providence-St. Mel 73-62 in a game in which they shot 3-of-25 from three-point range. Afterward, Coleman said: "I didn't know what they were doing out there. I never have seen a performance like that. In all my seven years of coaching boys basketball, they were totally unmotivated. They were outplayed, out-rebounded and out-hustled."

To say the Warhawks' only loss to date was a wake up call would be an understatement.

"We aren't as good as we think we are but we can be a great team. We have to do the little things to make each other better and have more leadership," McCloud said.

"When the three of us came together, I worried at first that it might not work. But now I see that we are bonding. We can be a great team, a team that can't be beat. We want to make history. That's our plan, our goal. Our edge is our quickness. We can get up and down the court very fast. We relied too much on Simpson last year. We put a lot of pressure on him. But we have more balanced scoring this year. Leadership on the court will bring us all together. Someone has to take the scoring role that Simpson had and take us Downstate."

Amos-Mays believes he, McCloud and Hall are more hungry, knowing they are supposed to be the team to win a state championship. "We are more of a team this year because we don't look at one person like Simpson last year. We have multiple people who can score. We can rely on three instead of one," he said.

Meanwhile, Amos-Mays is trying to figure out his true identity. He is an outstanding athletequarterback in football. And he is an outstanding but underrated shooting guard in basketball, just beginning to attract attention from major Division I schools.

"It is hard to choose which sport I like the most. It is very difficult," he admits. "I am leaning to basketball right now. But I can't make a choice. I am more successful in basketball than football. I don't feel the same about football as I used to. It isn't as much fun as it used to be, not as much fun as basketball. I have more love for basketball."

Hall has a lot of love for Kentucky. "That's where I want to play," he said. But he has received only one letter, nothing else. He likes the way Kentucky coach John Calipari handles his players. "I have time to show them what I can do. I hope they'll come and see me play," Hall said.

"The loss to Providence-St. Mel was a big wake up call for us. It showed we aren't as good as the the hype right now, that we have to keep our heads out of the limelight. We need more people to step up and prove we can be the No. 1 team in the state with the type of team we have.

"But we must play as a team and compete. It shouldn't be just one of us but all three of us should step up and be a leader. My role is to rebound, play strong, bring aggressiveness to the court, create things inside and open up shots on the outside for Amos-Mays and McCloud. They are the scorers. They can score in many ways.

"Last year, we watched Simpson. This year, any one of us can score and close out a game. We have more balance and we are hungrier this year. We want to be known as the team that took first place in state."

Wintrust Athlete of the Week: Cole Kmet

Wintrust Athlete of the Week: Cole Kmet

St. Viator senior tight end Cole Kmet is a four-star recruit who plans to commit to Notre Dame in February.

But growing up, Kmet also played baseball, which happened to be his best sport as coaches were eyeing his abilities.

Kmet was faced with the difficult decision of having to pick one or the other as a career, and ultimately chose football.

See why he was named this week's Wintrust Athlete of the Week in the video above.

Halftime speeches propel resilient Griffins to come-from-behind victory

Halftime speeches propel resilient Griffins to come-from-behind victory

For 24 minutes in Bolingbrook last Friday night, the Lincoln-Way East Griffins were lost.

A week after suffering a home loss to No. 3 Homewood Flossmoor – a game in which they led 14-0 in the first quarter – Rob Zvonar’s group was reeling in what was expected to be another litmus test for one of the top-ranked teams in Illinois. In front of the Griffins was a second chance to prove against a ranked opponent that they belonged in the top tier, and for quarterbacks they looked anything but.

An offense with two poised quarterbacks and myriad talent at the skill positions had come to a screeching halt after a touchdown drive on their first possession. A pair of lost fumbles and an interception negated three successful drives into Raiders territory in the game’s opening half; three turnovers in two quarters almost always spells doom, let alone doing so on the road at one of the state’s toughest home venues.

And an inexperienced yet talented defense littered with future collegiate talent had allowed three long scoring drives, though a goal-line stand in the first quarter that limited the Raiders to a field goal helped. The lackluster performance on both sides of the ball pinned the Griffins with a 16-7 deficit – that felt like much more than nine points – as the team trotted into the south end zone to meet with coaches for halftime adjustments.

And it was during that 15-minute intermission that something clicked for Zvonar’s group. A fiery halftime speech from wide receivers coach Lance Lokanc, and another from Zvonar before the team took the field in the second half acted as a rallying point for their most impressive half of football to date.

The Griffins reeled off 34 unanswered points in the second half, and only a late Raiders touchdown in the game’s final minute kept Lincoln-Way East from pitching a second-half shutout in the 41-23 victory.

“At some point they’ve got to turn it on themselves,” Zvonar said after the game. “You can be a real clever coach, but they’ve got to make up in their minds (to do it). And I’m glad they did.”

All week in practice Zvonar had been preaching three words to his team: persistence, resolve and perseverance. And while his message was in relation to the previous week’s loss – wanting to see how his team learned from their first setback of the year – they received an in-game test, and passed with flying colors.

The offense bounced back in a major way. Quarterback Jake Arthur threw for a touchdown and ran for another, while Max Shafter connected on a 20-yard touchdown pass to Ken Anderson, who found the end zone for the fourth time. Jeremy Nelson was on the receiving end of Arthur’s, controlling his body on a fade route to the back of the end zone that got the offense going in the third quarter.

It was one of 11 receptions on the evening for Nelson, the Griffins’ leading receiver who finished with 133 yards.

“A lot of us had our heads down (at halftime),” Nelson said after the game. “Then Coach Z fired us up, Coach Lokanc fired us up, and that really got us going. We came out really strong.”

Four scores from the offense – running back Nigel Muhammad iced the game with a 37-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter – were a boon, but it was the defense that ramped up its intensity after halftime.

Zvonar’s group allowed just 39 yards in the second half. The Raiders completed three of 14 passes and averaged a measly 2.2 yards per rush. Defensive end Devin O’Rourke showed why he’s one of the most highly sought-after juniors in the state, tallying three sacks – two in the second half – and finishing with a game-high seven solo tackles.

Linebacker Brett Stegmueller was everywhere, racking up six tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery. The swarming Griffins defense took a lesson from the halftime talks, and persevered with their backs against the wall on the road.

“Just coming out making plays, just motivating the whole defense to come together playing as one,” he said. “That’s what allowed us to do what he did.”

Zvonar’s definition of showing resolve was illustrated clearly by wide receiver Nick Zelenika. The slot receiver fumbled in the first half and had a ball go off his hands that resulted in an interception early in the third quarter. But the senior responded, returning a punt 38 yards for a touchdown that gave the Griffins a 20-16 they did not relinquish.

“It’s easy to talk about what we’re going to do,” he said of the halftime speeches, “but to go out there and actually do it is a whole other thing. And I think we really showed that in the second half.”

It was only one game, albeit the Griffins’ last real steep competition before the playoffs roll around in six weeks. But the stark contrast from the prior week, when the Griffins came out firing against HF and fizzled down the stretch, gave them another difficult situation to look back on should they find themselves in a similar spot later in the year.

And unlike Week 3, the Griffins showed persistence, resolve and perseverance. They learned something about themselves in that loss, but were also able to take away an important lesson in what became their most impressive victory to do date.

“I think we found out maybe we’ve got a group that won’t quit when the chips are down,” Zvonar said. “I think that was the biggest thing. They kept battling, and we came out with a decisive win.”