400 wins and counting for Farragut's Nelson


400 wins and counting for Farragut's Nelson

William "Wolf" Nelson, to his everlasting disappointment, will forever be remembered as the coach of one of the best high school basketball teams never to win a state championship.
It happened in 1995, when Farragut, ranked No. 1 in the state with a lineup that included future NBA star Kevin Garnett, three-time All-Stater Ronnie Fields and Michael Wright, lost to Thornton 46-43 in the Class AA quarterfinals.
"That was my most disappointing moment in coaching," said Nelson, in his 22nd season. "I'll never forget that team. It was our first trip to state and I was the new kid on the block. I wasn't prepared for all the hoopla, the circus surrounding the state tournament."
Nelson didn't scout Thornton. He didn't think he needed to. He thought his team was invincible, that it could overcome any adversity and overpower any opponent. "My first chance was my best chance at winning the state title. Now I regret it," he said.
"If I could have it to do all over again, if I knew then what I know now, I wouldn't have lost that game. Before the game started, there were things to do and we didn't follow through. I wasn't totally prepared. I didn't know what to expect. I thought who we were and what we were was enough. But it wasn't. You have to do what you need to do to be ready."
Nelson, 52, has learned from his mistakes. On Jan. 12, he recorded the 400th victory of his career as Farragut rallied to edge Thornton Fractional North 63-60 at the Bob Hambric Coaches Against Cancer Shootout in Calumet City.
The Admirals, who started 0-3, defeated Crane 58-52 on Wednesday to extend their winning streak to nine games. Last Thursday, however, they lost to top-rated Whitney Young 77-63, then lost to Gary (Indiana) West Side 61-49 on Saturday, and to North Chicago 69-65 on Sunday. They'll try to snap their three-game losing streak against Orr on Wednesday.
Nelson never has been skittish about playing tough competition. Playing in the Public League's Red-West Division, one of the strongest conferences in the state, is a given. But Nelson always has sought to fill his schedule with other state-rated or nationally ranked opponents.
"We had so-so teams but the turning point was when I got Curtis Ganes and Ronnie Fields to go to Farragut. Until then, we lost kids who lived across the street from the school to Marshall or Crane or Westinghouse. I wanted to get kids to stay in the neighborhood," Nelson said.
A 1978 graduate of Farragut, Nelson admired basketball stars Billy Lewis, Sonny Parker and Anthony Brown. But he didn't play basketball. He was captain of the chess team. He had his own fan club.
"I was one of the top chess players in the city," he said. "Chess players had fans, too. I had a following around the city, like a big basketball star."
He played basketball at a youth center. As a seventh grader, he was introduced to the game by Ron Dunlap, a 1964 All-Stater at Farragut who went to Illinois. "I wasn't good enough to play on the varsity. But I was a student of the game. I could explain how you played the game. I just couldn't do it," he said.
Nelson studied electrical engineering and math at Illinois-Chicago and Northeastern Illinois. As a college student in 1983, he began serving as an assistant coach on Farragut's frosh-soph basketball team. In 1989, he began teaching math at his alma mater. When head coach Thomas Peppers left in 1990, Nelson became head coach.
He knew the history of the program. From the outside looking in, he recalled the powerful Lewis/Parker teams that coach Wardell Vaughn produced in the 1970s. As good as they were, however, they weren't good enough to beat Crane or Marshall or Hirsch or Phillips or Morgan Park or Vocational.
"Something was missing," Nelson said. "I didn't have war stories to tell to motivate kids."
So he persuaded Ron Eskridge, who had been an assistant under Vaughn, to join his staff. Eskridge was an invaluable addition. If nothing else, he accomplished two things that led to Farragut's rise. He persuaded Garnett to enroll at Farragut for his senior year and served as Fields' Svengali.
Meanwhile, Nelson sought to build a reputation as one of the most successful coaches in the Public League. He looked up to Vaughn, Marshall's Luther Bedford, King's Landon Cox and Simeon's Bob Hambric. He wanted to accomplish what they had accomplished--and more.
"I asked myself: 'When will I be able to go out to big tournaments like Proviso West and persuade good players to come to Farragut?' When we finally were invited to Danville for Thanksgiving, and Proviso West for Christmas and the KMOX Shootout in St. Louis, I knew we had arrived. We were doing what Simeon and Whitney Young are doing now," he said.
Nelson has built a well-founded reputation as "the best big man coach in the state." He has a knack for taking big kids who never played basketball before or couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time, and developing them into well-coordinated and athletic virtuosos on the court...players such as Ganes, Garnett, Wright, Elliott Poole, Ollie Bailey, Mike Dunigan and Rashaun Stimage.
"I'm a student of the game and I can tell you what you are doing even if you don't know," he said. "I've always been a teacher, even as a chess player."
The All-Nelson team? His all-time starting five? Garnett, Fields, Wright, Poole and Theotis Owens, who played on his first team in 1991 and later played at Kankakee Community College.
"[Nelson] has never gotten the level of respect that he deserves for the job that he has done at Farragut," said recruiting analyst Roy Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye. "His longevity and track record are testament to his ability as a coach.
"Most importantly, he does things the right way. We have never heard of any allegations of him recruiting players. We can truly say that we have as much respect for him as any coach in the Public League and there is no question that he is one of the best."
Nelson will continue to coach as long as he is having fun, as long as he believes he can develop young men and make a difference in their lives. But he admits it isn't as much fun as it used to be, before Garnett arrived at Farragut and brought street agents with him.
"We had to watch kids all the time. They are very fragile," Nelson said.
"Today, a lot of them are driven by AAU coaches. Other guys try to take over your program. You aren't in control as much as you would like.
"Young coaches don't have as much morals as old-time coaches. They don't develop kids as much as they used to. So many are in it for the wrong reasons. They don't respect the game. Coaches, parents and officials think the game is about them and not about the kids."
As president of the Public League Basketball Coaches Association, Nelson said he is trying to figure out what he can do to get young coaches to be more respectful of the game. He also wants the coaches to have a better relationship with the Public League's sports administration.
"I definitely would like to have more involvement with the sports administration," he said, "It is more of a dictatorship. We have problems with scheduling and officials and transfers and eligibility. We have no say in what is going on.
"We want a better relationship with (sports supervisor) Calvin Davis. We want to make it a smooth running machine. What are the rules? I have been coaching for 22 years and I still don't know the rules. Why is this kid eligible and this kid isn't?"
All Nelson knows for sure is (1) he isn't thinking of retirement, (2) he won't attempt to win 900 games (like St. Joseph's Gene Pingatore) but (3) he would like to win 500.
His current squad figures to move him closer to that goal. "It is a carbon copy of all my teams. We have pieces but we lack depth. We only have 11 players on the roster," Nelson said.
Most critics talk about 6-foot-6 junior Sire Carroll (16 ppg) but Nelson insists the best player on his roster is 6-foot sophomore point guard Ernest Johnson (12 ppg, 9 rpg, 4 assists). Two other starters are 6-foot-4 junior Ashawn Jones (12 ppg) and 5-foot-9 sophomore Joshua Adams (13 ppg).
"I would love to add a post player to this group and we could compete with anybody," Nelson said. "Next year's team will be one of the best I have coached."

The growing problem with high school football scheduling

The growing problem with high school football scheduling

Last Friday afternoon Joliet Catholic loaded its team and coaches into "yellow rockets" and headed to Franklin, Wis., on Opening Night. Both Lincoln-Way East and Lincoln-Way Central headed to Indiana to play games.

Hinsdale Central hosted American Fork. American Fork, located just south of Salt Lake City, traveled to Hinsdale play the Red Devils.

Play in a conference such as the DuPage Valley, which needs to find non-conference games outside of the first two weeks of the season? Then much like Waubonsie Valley (Week 7 @ Fishers (Hamilton Southeastern), Neuqua Valley (Week 5 at Indianapolis Bishop Chartard) or Naperville Central (Week 6 at national power Lakewood Ohio St. Edward) you too will be on the road out-of-state.

Finding a few non-conference games to play is becoming an adventure.

Scheduling continues to be a growing problem for many IHSA football programs. Between the pressures of getting into the state playoffs along with a conference system that also seems to be imploding by the week state-wide, something needs to get sorted out sooner than later.

How about some possible solutions?

Some have suggested expanding the IHSA state playoff field, thus making the need to schedule "five wins to get in" less of a focus for teams across the state. Yet ask any high school coach and a large majority of them have a real issue with an "everyone-gets-in" system. Letting everyone into the IHSA state football playoffs would ease scheduling but also eliminates what many coaches feel makes the IHSA football playoffs special, which is making a regular season schedule actually count.

Conferences? These days more and more conferences, many of which have decades of history and tradition, are breaking apart. From the North and Western suburbs, which have already seen new realignments to the soon-to-be powder keg located in the South and Southwestern suburbs, expect even more scrambling for teams to find games.

How about letting the IHSA take over scheduling? Again some have suggested that the IHSA handle state-wide scheduling and make football much like other IHSA sports, such as football conferences becoming more like regionals. Yet this plan would eliminate well established conferences such as the Chicago Catholic League and others who would want to maintain its history.

Yet one thing seem to becoming much clearer these days as more and more schools head to all points to play games: something needs to change when it comes to scheduling.

AP Illinois preps football rankings: Week 1

AP Illinois preps football rankings: Week 1

Here are the preseason rankings of Illinois high school football teams in each class, according to an Associated Press panel of sportswriters.

Class 8A

No. Team W-L Pts Prv
1 Loyola (12) 1-0 120 1
2 Lincoln-Way East 1-0 104 2
3 Glenbard West 1-0 93 3
4 Homewood-Flossmoor 1-0 84 4
5 Edwardsville 1-0 60 5
6 Brother Rice 1-0 57 NR
7 Glenbard North 1-0 45 8
8 Palatine 1-0 43 7
9 Waubonsie Valley 1-0 19 9
10 Maine South 1-0 18 NR

Other receiving votes: Huntley (13), Naperville Neuqua Valley (2), Naperville North (1), Hinsdale Central (1)

Class 7A

No. Team W-L Pts Prv
1 Chicago Mt. Carmel (11) 1-0 119 1
2 East St. Louis (1) 1-0 109 2
3 Libertyville 1-0 86 4
4 Batavia 1-0 73 3
5 Normal Community 1-0 70 5
6 Bradley-Bourbonnais 1-0 60 6
7 Fenwick 1-0 55 NR
8 St. Charles North 1-0 37 9
9 Wheaton North 1-0 15 NR
10 Machesney Park Harlem 1-0 10 NR

Other receiving votes: Lake Zurich (6), Geneva (5), Belleville West (5), St. Rita (4), Wheaton Warrenville South (2), Jacobs (1), Hononegah (1), Benet (1), Lincoln Way West (1)

Class 6A

No. Team W-L Pts Prv
1 Sacred Heart-Griffin (Spr) (11) 1-0 118 2
2 Prairie Ridge 1-0 108 4
3 Crete-Monee 1-0 84 5
4 Rockford Auburn 1-0 77 6
5 Montini (1) 0-1 66 1
6 Lemont 1-0 51 7
7 Cary-Grove 0-1 49 3
8 Belvidere North 1-0 41 9
9 St. Laurence 1-0 37 T10
10 DeKalb 1-0 11 NR

Other receiving votes: Chatham Glenwood (4), Providence (4), Oak Lawn Richards (4), Hinsdale South (2), Bloomington (2), Danville (1), Rockford Boylan (1)

Class 5A

No. Team W-L Pts Prv
1 Nazareth (13) 1-0 130 1
2 Peoria Central 1-0 114 2
3 Washington 1-0 106 3
4 Champaign Central 1-0 80 5
5 Sterling 1-0 69 7
6 Woodstock Marian 1-0 68 6
7 Joliet Catholic 0-1 44 4
8 Metamora 1-0 36 10
9 Centralia 1-0 34 T8
10 Triad 1-0 10 NR

Other receiving votes: Peoria Notre Dame (6), Sycamore (4), Kaneland (4), Decatur Eisenhower (4), LaSalle-Peru (2), Morgan Park (2), Rich Central (1), Cahokia (1)

Class 4A

No. Team W-L Pts Prv
1 Althoff Catholic (11) 1-0 123 2
2 Rochester (2) 1-0 117 3
3 Breese Mater Dei 1-0 88 4
4 Phillips 0-1 83 1
5 Geneseo 1-0 82 5
6 Johnsburg 1-0 60 8
7 Marengo 1-0 57 6
8 Manteno 1-0 47 7
9 Quincy Notre Dame 1-0 15 NR
10 Columbia 1-0 14 NR

Other receiving votes: Taylorville (12), Richmond-Burton (7), Rockford Lutheran (4), Stillman Valley (3), Plano (2), Rock Island Alleman (1)

Class 3A

No. Team W-L Pts Prv
1 IC Catholic (12) 1-0   4
2 Wilmington (1) 1-0   3
3 Monticello 1-0   5
4 North-Mac 1-0   6
5 Newton 1-0   8
5 (tie) Pana 1-0   7
7 Bishop McNamara 0-1   1
8 Byron 1-0   T9
9 Paxton-Buckley-Loda 1-0   T9
10 Tolono Unity 0-1   2

Other receiving votes: Elmwood-Brimfield (13), Williamsville (6), Herscher (4), Breese Central (4), St. Joseph-Ogden (3), Carlinville (1), Winnebago (1), Mt. Carmel (1), Princeton (1)

Class 2A

No. Team W-L Pts Prv
1 Auburn (8) 1-0   1
2 Downs Tri-Valley (2) 1-0   2
3 Maroa-Forsyth (1) 1-0   3
4 Deer Creek-Mackinaw 1-0   4
5 Sterling Newman (1) 1-0   5
6 Mendon Unity 1-0   9
7 Orion 1-0   10
8 Wethersfield 1-0   8
9 Eastland-Pearl City 1-0   NR
10 St. Bede 0-1   6
10 (tie) Nashville 0-1   NR

Other receiving votes: Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley (7), DuQuoin (6), Fulton (4), Leo (3), El Paso-Gridley (2), Champaign St. Thomas More (1), Rushville-Industry (1), Clifton Central (1)

Class 1A

No. Team W-L Pts Prv
1 Decatur St. Teresa (14) 1-0 140 2
2 Ottawa Marquette 1-0 117 3
3 Tuscola 1-0 106 5
4 Forreston 1-0 101 6
5 Dakota 1-0 68 8
6 Mt. Sterling (Brown County) 1-0 63 9
7 Athens 1-0 47 10
8 Stark County 0-1 30 1
9 Bureau Valley 1-0 26 NR
10 Stockton 1-0 23 NR

Other receiving votes: Lena-Winslow (16), Carrollton (11), LeRoy (9), Arcola (8), Camp Point Central (2), Hardin (Calhoun) (2), Chicago Hope Academy (1)

Recruiting news and notes: Jeff Thomas in no rush


Recruiting news and notes: Jeff Thomas in no rush

East St. Louis senior four-star ranked wide receiver Jeff Thomas (5-foot-11, 170 pounds) put on a show in the Flyers' 34-3 win over Providence Catholic in New Lenox.

Thomas, who hauled in 5 catches for 170 yards and two touchdowns while also playing defensive back, is still uncommitted and doesn't seem to be in any hurry to make a college choice.

"Everything is the same," Thomas said. "It's all about my team and the season for right now."

Earlier this summer, Thomas listed his top schools as Alabama, Auburn, Florida State, Miami (Fla.), Michigan State and Missouri. Missouri just added a recent verbal commitment from East St Louis QB Rey Estes and the Tigers many feel could have an advantage in landing Thomas. Missouri has four former East St. Louis Flyers on its current roster.

Deerfield senior three-star ranked defensive end Joshua Maize (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) recently released his list of favorites schools which includes Toledo, UConn, Indiana, Central Michigan, Miami of Ohio and Ball State. Maize however has also been drawing heavy recruiting looks from several other BCS level schools including Purdue, Syracuse, Rutgers, Illinois and Penn State and those schools plan to re-evaluate Maize early this fall. Maize plans to make official visits before making a final college choice and recently said, "my recruiting process is still very open at this time."

[RELATED - Edgy Tim's Top 25 power rankings: Week 2]

One position that is having rough recruiting ride in the Class of 2017? Quarterback. So far just three in-state Class of 2017 signal callers have given BCS level schools a verbal commitments including Jacob's Chris Katernick (Bowling Green), Marian Catholic's Cameron Thomas (Illinois) and Estes (Missouri). So far, the only FCS level in-state known verbal pledge comes from Hinsdale Central's Josh Bean (Columbia). 

This Thursday (Sept. 1st) is a big day in football recruiting circles for the Class of 2018. Thursday is the first day that prospects are allowed per the NCAA to receive recruiting materials (mail) along with unlimited electronic transmissions (text/instant/direct messages) from college coaches. 

"I've stayed in touch with a handful of college coaches and they all said that I would be hearing from them on Thursday," Lake Zurich junior inside linebacker Jack Sanborn said. "It's exciting to hear from those coaches along with hopefully some new schools as well."

Need proof that the recruiting process calendar is getting pushed up earlier and earlier? From my recently-released State of Illinois Class of 2017 Top 60 recruit rankings, 49 out of the 60 recruits have already given schools a verbal commitment. Out of the 11 uncommitted players, I would say nearly half of those players are being held up from giving a verbal commitment because of various academic questions/issues.