Dick Knar has a history of turning hamburger into filet mignon. He once helped persuade future NBA star David Robinson to attend the Naval Academy. He turned a losing program at Northridge Prep into a sectional champion. And he is trying to do the same thing at Mundelein.
Now, with more than a few able assists from his son Robert, a 6-foot junior guard who has scored over 1,500 points in his brief career, Knar hopes to turn Mundelein into a consistent winner by achieving things that the Lake County school never has experienced before.
"This could be the best team I've coached," Knar said. "We have only two seniors. We are so young and sometimes we play like it. We lost two games in a row (to Cary Grove and Crystal Lake Central) and showed our warts. Size kills us. But we can score. If we push ourselves and rebound and defend, we can be very successful."
Mundelein will carry a 15-3 record into Friday's North Suburban Lake matchup with Stevenson. On Saturday, the Mustangs will face Antioch.
A year ago, Knar's team was 29-5 and lost to conference rival Warren by eight points in the sectional final. If Mundelein is to make history by winning its first sectional championship in school history, it is likely the Mustangs will have to go through Warren.
"We still have to beat Warren. They are the perennial power. But we don't fear them," said Robert Knar. "We know what it takes to get to the sectional. If we play defense, run our offense and accept our roles, we can get over the hump. If we beat Warren, we will know that we have arrived.
"We're getting a reputation as winners. The football team was 1-8, 2-7, 1-8 and 0-9 in the last four years. Losing started to get old. If you win, fans will come to see you. People have taken a liking to us. The students have adopted us. We don't want to have a reputation as a loser anymore."
At Northridge Prep in Niles, Dick Knar started 5-15 and 9-21 at a school that had won only eight games in eight years. In his third season, he was 21-9. In his last two years, he was 20-9 and 22-11 and won a first-ever Class A sectional title.
At Mundelein, he started 4-21 and 7-21. "Brutal" was how he described it. But he won 22 games in his third season. "I could see the light at the end of the tunnel," he said. Now the goal is to advance to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time and perhaps punch a ticket to Peoria.
If the Mustangs make the trip, Robert Knar will be the conductor. He is averaging 21 points, 7.7 rebounds and 7 assists per game. He is the fourth leading scorer in school history and is leading Lake County in assists for the third year in a row. He has scored as many as 41 points in a game.
"When you have a good point guard, you don't realize how good he is until you don't have him anymore," Dick Knar said. "We hope people will press us. Robert has only 27 turnovers in 18 games. Last year, he went seven games in a row without a turnover.
"What makes him so good is he thinks he is the best player on the floor whenever he steps on the floor. He has no fear. He can control things. He is unselfish to a fault."
Robert Knar has received interest from Stanford and Virginia but he admits he probably prefers the "homey atmosphere" of smaller schools such as Northern Iowa and Bucknell. They have offered. So have Central Michigan, Santa Clara, Illinois State and Toledo.
"I visited Stanford and it didn't scare me," he said. "But Northern Iowa or Bucknell are more my style. They are a good fit. They are on my mind the most. They give me a lot of attention. Bucknell said I am one of their top priorities.
"Mid-major and high-major doesn't matter anymore. You get great competition everywhere. The Missouri Valley is a great conference. Northern Iowa is a small school but they have proven that they can play with anyone in basketball."
But recruiting is taking a backseat to completing his junior season in style. Robert Knar teams with 6-foot-6 junior Sean O'Brien (15 ppg, 10 rpg, 52 blocks), 6-foot-4 junior Chino Ebube (10 ppg, 6 rpg), 5-foot-10 sophomore point guard Nate Williams (5 ppg) and 6-foot-1 senior Nate Brune (7 ppg, 33 three-pointers).
More firepower is provided by 5-foot-10 senior guard Jordan Wiegold (6 ppg) and 6-foot-3 junior Cliff Dunigan, who has scored 20 or more points in three games.
Robert Knar and O'Brien were guards at the lower levels. But O'Brien grew from 6-foot-2 to 6-foot-6 and retained his point guard skills while developing into a shot blocker. He is a matchup nightmare for most opponents. Ebube is back after missing nine games while attending his grandmother's funeral in Nigeria.
"We need to be more consistent," the coach said. "We have to learn what level of intensity it takes to practice every day. We're working on ways to rebound better as a group. We must get our guards to go after the boards. We must rebound consistently. That's the biggest key for us."
Knar's players also see the light at the end of the tunnel. "From a standpoint of talent and athleticism, we are good. There is a maturation process we have to go through to be as good as last year. We are getting there. We are imposing our will on other teams. We feel we can get on a roll," Robert Knar said.
He cites his team's recent victory over conference rival Libertyville. "They cut our lead from 18 points to four. An inexperienced team wouldn't have won. They had momentum. But we held it together and won by 12," he said.
"We will outlast people. That's our edge, what will make the difference in tough games. We are in good condition. We have good shooting. We have multiple guys who can go for 20 points in any game. And we have a deep bench and quickness. That will enable us to outlast opponents."
Robert Knar said he and his teammates have been mapping out their goals for the 2011-12 season ever since a preseason meeting.
"The school never has gotten beyond the sectional. It was a cloud hanging over our heads," he said. "At that team meeting, we explained what it would take to get to state. Some thought they were afraid. But we said we have to do it together. It is starting to evolve now. It is catching on with the whole team. We're starting to believe. We think we can knock off Warren and Stevenson. We have the right guys to do it."