Some kids don't take the time to learn about the tradition and history of their high schools. Does the school even have a tradition? If so, who were the coaches and teams and athletes that established a winning reputation, pride in the program and spirit in the school?
Brian Bertsche grew up in Chicago and moved to Evanston when he was 12. He didn't wait until he became a starter on the basketball team as a senior to learn about Evanston's tradition...Bob Lackey, Jack Burmaster, Everette Stephens, the 1968 state champion, the 1984 state runner-up, the Final Four teams of 2003 and 2008.
"I'm familiar with Bob Lackey and the players who went Downstate," Bertsche said. "I went to school with Bob Lackey's nephew and heard stories about the 1968 team. (Assistant coach) Steve Wool told us about the 1984 team and Everette Stephens."
But those were the good times. Bertsche notices there aren't too many trophies or plaques from the last 10 years. Sure, there is a lot of hardware from the 1980s and 1990s in the trophy case. But what have the football and basketball programs done for us lately? Remember when Evanston had the most dominant football program in Illinois?
"In the last decade, the athletic program hasn't been where it was -- but it is getting back," Bertsche said. "I feel Evanston is headed in the right direction. It is fun to see the program going back to the way it was in the glory days."
To restore the football and basketball programs to the levels they achieved in the 1960s and 1970s, Evanston hired two coaches with winning resumes -- football coach Mike Burzawa from Driscoll and basketball coach Mike Ellis from Peoria Richwoods.
Ellis built a powerhouse at Peoria Richwoods. His teams were 159-55 in seven years and finished second in the state in 2006 and 2010. In his first season at Evanston, he finished 18-10 after a 12-2 start. This year's squad is 7-0 going into this weekend's games against Waukegan and Loyola.
By Ellis' own admission, there aren't any Division I players on the roster, no one who resembles Bob Lackey or Everette Stephens. But Bertsche, a keen observer, feels the pulse of the student body and the community. Everybody likes what they are seeing. The present and the future are bright.
"It is fun for kids to be a part of a program where athletes are put first and coaches give us 100 percent of their effort," Bertsche said. "The community is involved. Everybody feels good to be a part of the program. Everybody is excited about the coach. He has re-engaged the community the way it has been in a long time."
Like most, however, Bertsche was surprised when Ellis was hired. "I had never heard of him. We didn't know who he was. But once we heard about his resume, we were excited to play under a proven winner. It became a very positive environment," he said.
Ellis wasn't a country hick from Peoria. He knew the ropes. He had a plan. He had won at a so-called "rich kids" school in Peoria and he was confident he could win at Evanston, no matter what hand he was dealt. He just needed some time to implement his system.
"I knew people were looking to see if I could prove what I could do," Ellis said. "I believe in myself. Peoria is a tough town. I experienced success there. I never doubted we could do it at Evanston. It is a basketball town now. The community embraces basketball."
He said last year's team didn't seem like it was completely focused. At times, he felt it was turning the corner. But he finally realized that it takes time to build relationships and trust and culture, that it can't be done overnight, or in one season, especially when he didn't have the luxury of working with his players in the off-season.
Ellis was hired on Oct. 5, 2010. He barely had enough time to learn how to pronounce his players' names. His main points of emphasis was putting the foundation of his program in place--playing hard, playing smart and playing together. He admits it took longer to implement than he desired. But a lot of coaches would kill to have an 18-10 record in their rookie season.
This year is a whole different story. "This year's team has a persona of 'Let's see what we can do.' The growth of the kids has exceeded my expectations. They are mastering my three-point plan at a quicker pace than I thought it would take," he said.
Part of his three-point plan is an extensive summer program. He arrived too late to implement it in 2010. But his players got a good dose of it during the past summer...open gym four times a week, trips to camps at Northern Iowa and Purdue, shootouts at Rock Island and Wisconsin Dells.
"Those are things they didn't do before. The purpose was to get experience playing together and bonding off the court, playing other teams and other styles," Ellis said.
"Last summer was awesome," Bertsche said. "It was a great time to bond and play together. We spent a lot of time together in the preseason. The attitude changed. We became a program of hard work and positive reinforcement and commitment. Everyone is really excited about where we are headed."
Ellis said he doesn't have any Division I players on his roster, only gutsy high school basketball players. Josh Irving, a 5-11 senior guard, is the leading scorer with 19 points per game. Senior point guard Jordan Perrin provides leadership and gives the Wildkits a pair of defense-minded players who apply pressure in the backcourt.
The front line is 6'9 senior Randy Ollie, 6'3 senior Leonard Garron and Bertsche, a 6'1 senior who was the sixth man last season. Ollie, who is recovering from an injury, once was a goalie on the soccer team. Garron is being touted as a Division I football prospect. Matt Munro, a talented baseball player, also sees playing time.
"There is a different attitude," Bertsche said. "Everybody feels as if they are involved, even in the feeder program. What I like is instead of looking elsewhere to play, all the kids are excited to play at Evanston. We lost some players to Loyola and Notre Dame. But now all the young kids want to be a part of the Evanston program."
Ellis isn't promising a rose garden. He insists he didn't come to Evanston to win a state championship. "I came to coach kids who enjoy playing basketball. If that leads to a state title, that's OK. But so many great coaches didn't win a state title. You can't use that as a defining reason to coach at a school," he said.
"I'm trying to rebuild the program. The success is graduating student-athletes who go on to be career leaders. The reality is they want to win in basketball. I understand the community and outsiders want to celebrate a state title. But I have never said: 'Let's get to Peoria.' I just look to the next day's practice or the next game."
Discipline is the hallmark of Ellis' program. While researching the Evanston program, it was one of the words that frequently came up in conversation. In the past, discipline was lacking. There were good athletes and an abundance of talent. But the players lacked discipline on the court.
"That is one thing that allowed us to be successful at Richwoods," he said. "If we are going to be successful at Evanston, we have to be disciplined."
And motivated. After last week's one-point victory over Maine South, Ellis told his players: "I hope you feel like we lost. We're going to get after it in practice as if we did lose. We're going to focus on getting better." Bob Lackey and Everette Stephens could relate to that message.