Ever since he enrolled at Lakes High School in Lake Villa, people have been trying to persuade Jake Kohler to play football. He is a 6-foot-4, 210-pound senior who looks like a football player. But he prefers to play basketball.
"At basketball camps, they asked me if I was a football player. When I told them 'no,' they said they hoped to see me playing football as a senior," Kohler said. "Maybe they were trying send me a message, that they thought I was more of a football player because of my build."
After playing linebacker on a championship team in eighth grade, he decided to drop football in favor of basketball. He always felt he was a better basketball player. His mother disagreed. She wanted him to play football in high school.
"I do regret not playing football when I see how successful the team was last year and the fact that I played with a lot of them until eighth grade," Kohler said, noting that Lakes' football team was 9-3 and 9-2 for the last two years.
"But I've been playing basketball since kindergarten. I'm a football player on the basketball court. That's my mentality for every game. I want to be the big person out there. I want to be known as a bruiser on the court. I think I'm proving I'm a basketball player now."
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So does Lakes coach Chris Snyder. With Kohler and six other players returning from last year's 20-11 squad that lost to eventual Class 3A state runner-up North Chicago in the sectional final, he had high expectations for 2012-13. And he hasn't been disappointed.
Lakes, which opened for classes only eight years ago, defeated Lake Zurich 55-39 on Tuesday night and will carry a 22-6 record and a nine-game winning streak into the Class 3A regional at Vernon Hills. The Eagles are seeded No. 2 behind North Chicago in the Antioch sectional.
In their regular season finale against Lake Zurich, Kohler scored 15 points while Direll Clark netted 16 and Justin Bergeron 10.
"This team is athletic, not overly big, but strong. We have physical kids, three football players (and Kohler)," Snyder said. "They have a good feel for each other, a good chemistry.
"We're a young school. This has happened quicker than usual for new schools. But the kids put in a lot of hard work. They put us on the map. This senior class has had a lot of success in football and basketball. It is an exceptional class. We had a lot of good pieces coming back."
Snyder, 33, is a 1998 graduate of Wheaton North and is in his third year as Lakes' head coach after serving as an assistant for four years. His first team was 9-20. So how does he explain last year's 20-11 turnaround and this year's continued success?
"Once you establish things, it gets contagious," he said. "It started with last year's seniors. They set a level and this group is following that lead. They are raising the bar. Each class tries to outdo the other."
Snyder starts three three-year players who have experienced the ups and downs and learned what it takes to win--Kohler (12 ppg, 7 rpg), 5-foot-11 senior Direll Clark (12 ppg) and 6-foot-4 senior Justin Bergeron (11 ppg, 6 rpg). Clark, who will attend Winona State in Minnesota, and Bergeron played football.
Other starters are 5-foot-11 senior Troy Swindle (8 ppg, 4 apg) and 5-foot-11 senior Andrew Spencer (9 ppg). T.J. Edwards, a 6-foot-2 junior who quarterbacked the football team last fall, comes off the bench. Spencer also played football.
"How fortunate we are to be as successful as we have been in such a short period of time," said Snyder, who employs Bob Knight's motion offense and Tom Izzo's man-to-man defense. "As a coach, I enjoy it even more because you know your kids are working hard every day in practice."
But are the Eagles good enough to beat North Chicago? They have met the Warhawks three times this season and lost twice.
"Our goal is the sectional title, to get back to the point we were at last year," Snyder said. "That is the next step for our program. We hope to meet North Chicago in the sectional final.
"It is a tall task to play them. But our kids are confident they can beat them. You must control tempo as much as you can against them. We must continue to be tough-minded, play had and physical. We can't take any possessions off."
Last fall, Kohler worked hard in the weight room and in the classroom. He wanted to focus on basketball. And he managed to maintain a 4.0 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale while scoring 24 on his ACT. He hopes to play basketball in college.
"He works harder than any player I have coached," Snyder said.
"It was disappointing to be 9-20 as a sophomore. But I knew I had two more years," Kohler said. "Clark, Bergeron and I got moved up to the varsity. We learned the offense and got good experience in big games. If we hadn't been moved up, maybe we wouldn't know how to handle ourselves."
As a sophomore, Kohler noticed that some upperclassmen didn't buy into the program. "They wanted to do their own thing," he recalled. But they lost only two seniors and the returnees could see a light at the end of the tunnel.
"We had more experience. We felt we had something special going," Kohler said. "This year's juniors and seniors have been playing with each other for a long time. Bergeron and I have been together for four years.
"We had high expectations for our senior year. We aren't surprised by what we have done this season. We knew Lakes had never won a regional. But we felt when we came in as freshmen that we would win a regional as seniors. Our expectations always were set high.
"The biggest factor in our success is team chemistry. All of us bond together. It happens off the court but it shows on the court."