Josh McAuley didn't arrive on the high school basketball scene with trumpets blaring and drums beating and the media tapping out glittering generalities about his shot-blocking skills. But his senior season didn't go unnoticed or unappreciated.
McAuley, West Aurora's 6-foot-7 center, has gone from nowhere to somewhere in such a short period of time that he even caught coach Gordon Kerkman unaware. And Kerkman has been coaching kids for more than 40 years. He knows a diaper dandy from a PTPer, a Kenny Battle from a second-stringer.
No, McAuley won't make anyone in Aurora forget about Battle, probably the best player the town has ever produced. But, in his own way, he made old-timers recall the vintage years of Manley's Russell Cross. And that puts him in a very unique class.
It's too bad he never made it to the state finals in Peoria. As a junior, he was ejected in the third quarter of the supersectional game after an altercation with a Proviso East player. West Aurora lost 62-51.
As a senior, the Blackhawks were once again eliminated by Proviso East 62-52 in the supersectional at Hinsdale Central despite McAuley's 22 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks.
But he earned All-Chicago Area and All-State recognition with a steady string of outstanding performances. He was all-tournament at Pontiac in December. He scored 11 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter to lead West Aurora past Geneva 47-35 in the regional. He had 11 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks in a 42-38 decision over Benet in the sectional.
Unfortunately, McAuley didn't master his schoolwork as well as he mastered his shot-blocking technique. He will enroll at a prep school or a junior college to improve his grades in order to qualify for a scholarship to a Division I school.
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Academics nothwithstanding, McAuley's future is assured. University of St. Francis has expressed interest. So has Northern Illinois.
"There is no question that McAuley is among the best unsigned front court prospects in Illinois from the class of 2013," said recruiting analyst Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye. "Not only does he consistently go to war but he can also face up and knock down open jumpers out to the three-point arc. He also is highly athletic and a superb shot-blocker."
McAuley ranks with former De La Salle star Gavin Schilling, now at Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nevada; former Whitney Young star Tommy Hamilton Jr., now at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida; point guard DeShawn Munson of East St. Louis; former Hope Academy star Jalen James, now at LaLumiere Academy in LaPorte, Indiana; guard Miles Simelton of Oswego; guard Keenan Minor of Class 3A runner-up Cahokia; point guard Malachi Nix of Niles North; and forward Russell Woods of Simeon among the top unsigned seniors from Illinois.
"This season has been a great thing for me," McAuley said. "Seeing my name being tossed around with all-conference and all-area and all-state. It's a big achievement. I was surprised. I was shocked when I found out I was picked as one of the top 20 players in the Chicago area (by the Chicago Sun-Times). It says all the work I did paid off."
McAuley's game developed slowly. So did he physically. As an eighth grader, he stood 5-foot-11. As a freshman, he was 6-foot-1. But he was 6-foot-6 as a junior, his first year on varsity.
"I had an OK season. I could have been better if I had more confidence," he said. "I was trying to get the feel of things. But I felt my game had improved a lot going into this year. More people realized I could shoot the ball better and was more capable of scoring and passing."
At 6-foot-7 with long arms and great athleticism, McAuley has made his reputation as a shot-blocker, as Russell Cross did while leading Manley to the Class AA championship in 1980.
"That's the most fun I have on the floor," he said. "I had over 100 blocks. It was a big motivator for the team. It came naturally. When I was younger, I didn't block shots. But I became a shot-blocker as a sophomore. It comes down to timing. I watch the ball and when it gets to the top, I go after it."
McAuley credits coach Gordon Kerkman for his development.
"He knows what he is talking about even though you might not agree with what he says. What he says always works. In a game, you might not agree with some plays he calls but they usually work," he said.
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Kerkman, who has been West Aurora's head coach since 1976, loves to regale his players with stories of yesteryear, especially stories of Kenny Battle. McAuley has heard them over and over.
"One thing he always brings up about Battle, one certain play, how he was on a fast break and got a dunk, then came back and blocked a shot and ran back and got another lay-up," McAuley said. "I've heard that story since I was a freshman. Whenever he gets a chance, when we don't get out on the break, he brings it up. We know where this is going.
"We know who Kenny Battle was. He coached an AAU team that I played against. He has plaques in the hallways at school. He is the best player ever at West Aurora."
After last year's embarrassing ejection in the supersectional, McAuley vowed to work hard on his offensive game over the summer so he would be a more complete player as a senior. He averaged only five points per game as a junior and took only two or three shots per game.
"But this year was different," said McAuley, who averaged 13 points, eight rebounds and four blocks. "I took pride in my offense. When teams looked at the scouting report, they had to defend me. They didn't have to do that last year. I didn't have any confidence. My role was to block shots and protect the paint."
Over the summer, he became a complete player. He worked with coach Rodney Davis of Illinois Attack's AAU program on his ball-handling and low post moves. At the Pontiac Holiday Tournament last December, he turned heads, opened eyes and dropped jaws.
"Some people looked at me and said: 'He's a decent player but not much of a threat on offense.' But after Pontiac, they looked at me in a different way. They realized I could score, too. And they noticed my shot-blocking. They realized when they got into the paint it would be just an easy lay-up, that they'd have to work for it," McAuley said.
"I knew this would be a better season than last year because of all the work I put in. But I wasn't expecting all the awards."