Glenbrook North was unbeaten, ranked among the best teams in the Chicago area and dreaming of the postseason success that coach Dave Weber's team experienced during the Jon Scheyer era.
Then the dream turned into a nightmare. Andrew McAuliffe, the team's leading scorer, suffered a fractured patella and spent most of the rest of the season in a brace and undergoing rehabilitation. The Spartans finished 20-6, losing to Niles North by one point in the regional final.
"I scored 29 points in a game against Niles North in December. I hurt my knee in the first quarter but I played the rest of the game," McAuliffe recalled. "I went to the emergency room that night to see what was wrong. They said it wasn't an ACL or a tendon tear.
"So I went to a doctor, got an X-ray and he said it was a broken patella. I didn't have to have surgery. But I was in a brace for a month-and-a-half, then rehab for three weeks. I came back and played the last five games of the year. I was about 60 percent.
"I was definitely frustrated. I had started off well (16 ppg, 5 rpg) and the team had started off well. I tried to stay positive. I knew being negative wouldn't help the team. I got back as soon as I could. But it was a real bummer, very frustrating."
McAuliffe, a 6-foot-8 junior, watched practice every day. He went to a pool and tried to stay in shape, swimming for 30 minutes a day. After the season, he iced his knee daily and began to work out with his AAU team. He still isn't 100 percent but he is getting better and better.
"In my first tournament, my knee felt sore after playing four games on the weekend. But I got stronger with more tournaments. The more I play, the better it is. Days off aren't a good thing for me," he said.
At the recent Best Buy tournament in Minneapolis, McAuliffe began to feel like his old self again. "My knee felt great. I was moving well and jumping well. I played through the soreness. It felt great to play again without having to worry about my knee. Now I'm almost there. Some days I'm sore, some days I'm not. I'm close to 100 percent," he said.
McAuliffe is eager to play with Fundamental University team in upcoming tournaments at Orlando and Las Vegas and looking ahead to the July evaluation period. He has scholarship offers from Loyola, Northern Illinois, Davidson, Drake, Tulane, Santa Clara, Belmont, Bucknell and Holy Cross and can expect more when he demonstrates that his knee is healthy.
"I'm not worried about recruiting. Offers will come in. I feel I am a major Division I player," he said. "I was a little worried. I knew I'd get back healthy but I was concerned about how much I'd have to work to get healthy. I'm a better player now. But it was brutal missing those 2 12 months.
"I'm keeping my options open, hoping high Division I offers will come. I'm not stressing over it. I think my game is what college coaches are looking for. My game? I'm a power forward. I'm good at passing to guards on the double team and I can step out and shoot from 15 feet. I want coaches to know I work really hard. I'm working a lot on extending my game and taking people off their dribble. I'm a team player. I make my teammates better."
Recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye see McAuliffe as a good fit for the Atlantic 10 or Conference USA. "He would be a steal for the Horizon, MAC or Missouri Valley," they said.
Weber believes once college recruiters get another look at McAuliffe this summer that they will be convinced he is ready to play at their level.
"He is definitely a Division I player," Weber said. "We will know in the summer, when he is fully healed, at what level of Division I, whether he is a high major player or mid-major. But he has the potential to play at a higher level.
"He is a power forward playing center for us. He is very skilled, very athletic inside and can dominate a game. He is a good shooter from the perimeter. The big problem is big guys in high school aren't always dominant because guards usually dominate in high school."
Mike Weinstein, McAuliffe's AAU coach, agrees with Weber's assessment. "He is good enough to play at a high major level but he has to show he is fully healthy by July. Now he is a mid-plus player. If he goes to a mid-plus school, he will be a dominant player and be able to score against high major players. But he needs to get the spring back in his legs and needs to show that he is healthy," Weinstein said.
He pointed out that several major Division I programs, including Illinois, Wisconsin, Stanford and Virginia are monitoring McAuliffe's progress. Illinois-Chicago and Illinois State also are interested.
McAuliffe doesn't need any more motivation than that.