Gordon Kerkman was up early on Saturday morning. The memory of Friday night's exciting 42-38 victory over Benet in the Class 4A sectional championship was forgotten. He was watching tape of Proviso East, Tuesday night's opponent in the supersectional at Hinsdale Central.
At 76, in his 37th year as head coach at West Aurora, Kerkman admits he has given serious thought to retirement. But the thrill of the hunt, the challenge of turning a group of underachievers into overachievers, the opportunity to match strategies with another coach, always seems to drive him back to the bench."
"It's hard to give up," he said. "Every coach dreams of going out with a state championship. I'm still having fun with certain aspects of coaching. I isn't as much fun as it used to be and I don't know why. My whole life is rushed so much. I hope age isn't catching up to me but, realistically, I think it is.
"Coaching is the part I enjoy the most. But game days are rushed so much...my mail business, bills to play, games to scout, practice at noon, running from place to place all the time. I'm not getting any younger. This is a great bunch of over-achievers. But I don't know if I would qualify it as fun."
Kerkman, who succeeded John McDougal after West Aurora finished second in the 1976 state tournament, has won 753 games, eighth on the all-time list among coaches in Illinois. He won a state title in 2000, was second in 1997 and third in 1980, 1984 and 2004.
But he is more concerned with what he has done lately. His 2006 team was 29-2 but lost to Peoria Richwoods in the state quarterfinals. Last year's 25-6 squad lost to Proviso East 62-51 in the supersectional. With four starters returning, he had high expectations for 2012-13.
"I knew we would have a good team, a very competitive team but I didn't know we would accomplish this much," Kerkman said. "I told the team before the season that if we didn't win at least 20 games, we'd be a failure. These kids are grinders. They don't have as much skill as we have had in the past but they don't quit. And they are good on defense. They get after it."
Kerkman stresses rebounding, defense and taking care of the ball. And this team plays better man-to-man defense than he anticipated. The Blackhawks proved it in their sectional victories over Oswego 61-60 and Benet 42-38. Now they'll have to prove it again against Proviso East.
"They play hard. They get after it. They are getting used to playing with one another. Four of them have played three years together," Kerkman said. "There isn't a lot of quickness. But when we talk about playing as a unit, we usually think of cohesiveness on offense. But these kids play well together. And they are playing smarter."
West Aurora lost three of five games during a three-week period in February and has snapped out of its funk by winning its last four in a row. The defense, led by 6-foot-7 senior Josh McAuley and the Thomas twins, 6-foot-2 seniors Chandler and Spencer, has triggered the turnaround.
"Defense is moving your feet, how hard you want to play and stay at it," Kerkman said. "These kids do little things that make up a good defense. The Thomas twins aren't gifted athletically and they aren't quick but they battle on the boards. The kids aren't great on-the-ball defenders but they work at it."
McAuley has made the biggest contribution of all. He is a three-year starter but not too many people paid much attention to him until this season. He earned a spot on the Chicago Sun-Times' 20-man All-Chicago Area team and has emerged as perhaps the premier shot-blocker in the state.
Kerkman isn't ready to compare McAuley to former West Aurora star Kenny Battle but he does claim McAuley "has a lot more in the way of skills than Battle did as a senior." McAuley has picked up his scoring (13 ppg) and has been credited with 100 blocks.
"He is 6-foot-7 but plays bigger, extremely long. He has great timing. If he had Kenny's intensity, he would be one of the stars in the state. His ability to intimidate opponents is a key to our defense. People don't want to go into the lane when he is there. They are always looking for him to come after them and block shots. From a standpoint of timing, I don't know if I've ever seen many kids who can block shots like he can."
Against Oswego, McAuley had 14 points and two blocks and sealed the victory with a dunk with 22 seconds remaining. Against Benet and 6-foot-8 Sean O'Mara, he had 11 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks and two steals.
McAuley has come a long way since last year. As a junior, he averaged only five points per game and took only two or three shots per game. His role was to be a shot blocker and protect the paint. He admits he could have been a better player if he had more confidence in himself.
In the supersectional against Proviso East, he was ejected in the third quarter after an altercation with a Proviso East player. Embarrassed and disappointed that he wasn't able to be there for his team, he was motivated for his senior season.
"I knew coming back this year I had to step up as a senior and take more of a leadership role," McAuley said. "I worked on my offensive game over the summer and became an all-around player. Now I take pride in my offense. When opponents look at the scouting report, they have to make me a priority to defend. They didn't have to do that last year."
McAuley is averaging 13 points, eight rebounds and four blocks per game. He said he is surprised by his achievements on the floor but he was downright shocked when he learned he had been selected to the Chicago Sun-Times' 20-man All-Chicago Area team.
"It says all the work I did over the summer has paid off," he said.
After being outplayed by Benet, Naperville North and Glenbard East last month, West Aurora has righted the ship with the same lineup it went to sea with in November--McAuley, the Thomas twins, point guard Jontrell Walker (21 ppg) and guard Jayquan Lee. Sophomores Roland Griffin and Matt Dunn provide punch off the bench.
"It mirrors last year. At tournament time, we picked it up," Kerkman said. "We lost two games to Glenbard East late in the season and it cost us the conference title. And they beat us this year to cost us the conference title. But, like last year, we have picked it up. I don't know if I can explain it. We kept doing the same things. Sometimes kids turn it on and I
don't know why. Now they are closer than earlier in the year. And they are more motivated."
The state tournament tends to do that to kids. And coaches, too.