It was sometime early in the school year when a fellow teacher approached an unsuspecting William "Wolf" Nelson in the hallway at Farragut and said: "Wolf, you're 3A now."
Nelson couldn't have been more surprised--and overjoyed--if he had just learned that Kevin Garnett and Ronnie Fields had been granted another year of eligibility.
"I was totally in the dark," he said. "I had to check it out. He was right. I was shocked. We've always been a big (4A) school before. But now we are 14 students short of being Class 4A.
"I called all the coaches and players and said: 'We've been to the Elite Eight three times before. If everything falls into place, we may have a chance to get to the Final Four again.' I look at the teams in Class 3A and feel we have a good chance to win state."
Translated, that means Simeon is in Class 4A. So are Proviso East, Curie, Warren, Andrew, Plainfield East, Bogan, New Trier and most of the highly rated schools in the state this side of Peoria Manual, Peoria Central and Springfield Lanphier.
In 1995, Farragut was the pre-tournament favorite with Garnett, Fields and Michael Wright. But the Admirals lost to Thornton in the state quarterfinals and finished 28-2.
In 2004, Farragut finished 29-4 behind Ollie Bailey, again losing in the state quarterfinals.
Last year, D.J. Tolliver led the Admirals to a 24-5 record. But they lost to eventual state champion Simeon in the state quarterfinals.
Despite returning only one starter, Nelson believes this year's squad "can be as good or better than last year's team." In fact, he was so optimistic that he deliberately arranged for the most competitive schedule of his 21-year career to prepare his inexperienced players for the Public League Red-West and state tournament grind.
The Admirals are 12-7 but have won seven in a row after beating highly rated Seton 50-45 on Sunday at North Park. Going into the city playoff, Nelson is confident that his team has what it takes to seriously contend for the Class 3A title. Nobody can say they aren't battle-tested.
"I'm having a ball with my team this year, more fun than ever. When you do the unexpected, it makes it fun," Nelson said. "There have been a lot of teachable moments. I set up a tough schedule, the toughest I could. I decided these guys need to learn and understand what it takes to play at a high level of basketball.
"With only one starter back, no one expected much from this team. I didn't want to wait around. I wanted to step up the learning curve, let them learn lessons sooner than later. I didn't want to beat weak teams. I wanted them to play against the best right away, to know where they are right way. My plan is working."
Farragut's schedule reads like a "who's who" of the elite programs in the Chicago area--and even Indiana. It includes Simeon, De La Salle, St. Ignatius, Hillcrest, Harlan, Seton, La Lumiere, Bowman Prep and Red-West rivals Crane, Marshall, Orr and Whitney Young. What? He couldn't schedule Kentucky or the Chicago Bulls?
"This team has a lot of potential," Nelson said. "I had a good feel about this team early on. We lost to Simeon by seven. And we have lost to other big-time teams but not by much. This team can be as good as last year's team."
The strength of this team? The Admirals have one outstanding player in 6-foot-7 senior Rashaun Stimage, a lockdown inside defender in 6-foot-5 David Scott and the best three-point shooter that Nelson has ever coached in 5-foot-9 senior point guard Lavell Boyd.
"We also have quickness, toughness and senior leadership. All the pieces are together," the coach said.
Stimage, who averages 20 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks per game and recently recorded a triple-double in a game against Hillcrest, is described by Nelson as "the best senior in the state," better than Simeon's more celebrated Steve Taylor.
"He is more versatile than Taylor. He doesn't get as much recognition as he deserves. He is one of the best players I have coached," said Nelson, who ranks Stimage behind Garnett, Fields, Wright, Bailey and Tolliver on his All-Nelson team.
Scott (7 ppg, 13 rpg) defends the opponent's toughest big man. Boyd (14 ppg, 3 assists), who scored 27 points in a recent victory over Raby, is a superb three-point marksman.
"In posting a triple double (16 points, 12 rebounds, 13 blocks) against Hillcrest, Stimage once again proved why he is one of the top two unsigned prospects (along with Downers Grove South's Jerron Wilbut) in the class of 2012 in Illinois," said recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye.
"Not overlooking Stimage's performance, another player who is just as integral a part of what Farragut does is Lavell Boyd, who is your typical tough-minded floor leader from Chicago's West Side. Boyd plays his tail off from start to finish and is quite disruptive defensively. He doesn't do anything in spectacular fashion but he has shown that he can run an offense and score points in transition."
But Nelson wants to see more defense from his guards. "The guards aren't as tough on defense this year as last year. They have trouble shutting down the other team's best guards. We can shut down the bigs. But our guards have to step up for us to make this run," he said.
Other starters are 6-foot-5 senior Deonta Terrell (13 ppg), the great nephew of former world heavyweight boxing champion Ernie Terrell, and 5-foot-10 senior John Carter (8 ppg, 4 assists).
The bench is headed by 6-foot-3 sophomore Ashawn Jones (5 ppg), 6-foot-6 sophomore Sire Carroll (5 ppg), 5-foot-10 freshman Ernest Johnson (3 ppg) and 5-foot-9 freshman Joshua Adams (3 ppg).
Against Seton, Stimage had 19 points, six rebounds and six blocks, Boyd scored 12 points and Scott had nine points and 21 rebounds.
"We have to sacrifice in order to win," Nelson said. "The test for them is not to play for individual glory but they have to play for the team. Statistics don't mean anything at this point. They can't be selfish. If I see them playing together and doing what I tell them, we'll be successful."