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."