Preps Talk

Five IHSA teams that exceeded expectations in 2020

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NBC Sports Chicago

Five IHSA teams that exceeded expectations in 2020

With the 2019-20 IHSA boys basketball season abruptly canceled last week, it made for a tough time to reflect on everything that just happened. Completely eliminating basketball in the middle of March is unprecedented territory.

But through the rest of the month at NBC Sports Chicago, we'll continue to take a look back at some special teams and players from the 2019-20 season. Today, we take a look at five Chicagoland area teams that exceeded expectations this season.

While some of these teams will never get a proper opportunity to finish a dream season, we can still fondly remember some huge moments during a fun 2019-20 season. 

Thornton -- From unranked to having a legitimate case as the best team in the area this season, it was quite a year at Thornton. The NBC Sports Chicago Preps Power Rankings kept Thornton just outside of its preseason rankings. A terrible decision in hindsight, it only served as a precursor to a season that saw Tai Streets and the Wildcats continually overcome expectations.

Thornton rolled through the competition, going 32-1 this season. The only loss came to Bloom, a team that was upset by Marian Catholic heading into the sectional finals. We'll never know if Thornton would have won the Bloom Sectional title or advanced past Curie or Whitney Young to make it to Peoria.

But head coach Tai Streets and his program had a benchmark year in a loaded part of the state. For a team with low preseason fanfare, the Wildcats became a must-see team. And Streets turned a team of under-the-radar players like DJ Williams and Brandon Hall into a team worthy of state title consideration. 

Curie -- For the second consecutive season, the Condors defied expectations and became a nationally-ranked juggernaut. And head coach Mike Oliver, and interim coach Larry Wallace, deserve an enormous amount of credit for building a consistent program.

Curie has only produced one high-major player (DaJuan Gordon) and was led by one committed Division I prospect in 2019-20 (Ramean Hinton). Even in a year where the city was brimming with high-major talent, Curie became the No. 1 team in the area for most of the season with a deep and balanced group. 

The Condors won at Pontiac and won the Red-South/Central. Curie continually bested strong Illinois and national competition. Through it all, Oliver, who was suspended at mid-season with an unresolved appeal to be heard later on, established Curie as a force to reckoned with.

Curie had the strongest season of any program in Illinois. Despite some of the turmoil surrounding the timing of Oliver's departure, Curie might have very well won a Class 4A title.

Joliet West -- The Tigers went from single-digit wins to 29-4 and undefeated in the Southwest Prairie in just one season.

In his first season coaching Joliet West, head coach Jeremy Krieger turned a roster of freshmen, football players and unsung seniors into a juggernaut that could have easily made it to Peoria. And much of the core is set to return for next season.

The future is now bright at Joliet West these next few seasons, even as Jamere Hill heads to Toledo next season. Jeremy Fears Jr. is a potential star to watch and Jaiden Lee was a fun-to-watch wing. Junior Trent Howland is a strong two-sport athlete with a lot of football attention. This season might just be the start of something bigger at Joliet West as huge expectations are in place for next season. 

Glenbrook South -- The Titans achieved a lot of dreams this season with a special group. 

Senior Dom Martinelli became a breakout, All-Area-caliber star with a dominant senior season. A young core of players around him, including sophomores Coop Noard and Dom's brother, Nick, elevated their play throughout the season. 

And head coach Phil Ralston's creative offense only enhanced Glenbrook South's greatest strengths. The Titans always had unique ways to get Martinelli the ball. Sometimes those plays were designed to draw defensive attention to get looks for other shooters. Most of the time it led to Martinelli scoring or being fouled. 

At 29-5 on the season, Glenbrook South surpassed our preseason expectations of No. 22. They quickly became a major storyline throughout the 2019-20 season.

Hinsdale South -- Over the past decade, the Hornets have quietly produced two high-major players (Barret Benson and Zion Griffin). 

Yet something clicked in 2019-20 to the point where Hinsdale South had its best team in school history. Head coach Brett Moore had plenty of talent to work with. Billy Durkin was a clutch player and Aaron Tims provided stability in the frontcourt.

But nobody could have anticipated a 30-3 record and winning the West Suburban Championship. This was a special season for Hinsdale South and one that will be remembered for quite some time. 

Jerry Sloan, Bulls player and Jazz coaching legend, stayed true to Illinois roots

Jerry Sloan, Bulls player and Jazz coaching legend, stayed true to Illinois roots

There’s country strong. And then there’s Jerry Sloan.

The NBA Hall of Fame player and coach, a tenacious defender and steady offensive threat, became a household name with the Chicago Bulls in the 1970s. Four-time NBA All-Defensive First Team. Two-time NBA-All-Star.

Sloan died Friday after a courageous battle against Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia. He was 78.

But it was Sloan’s perseverance as a child and his dedication to the game of basketball —and his home town— 300 miles south of the Windy City that made him a real star.

[MORE: Remember ‘Original Bull’ Jerry Sloan as he lived: tough, humble and honest]

The former Bull, who went on to lead the Utah Jazz to the playoffs in 15 of his 23 seasons there as a head coach, grew up on a farm near McLeansboro, Illinois. The youngest of 10 children, Sloan would routinely wake up in the wee hours to do family chores. He’d then walk two miles to the town’s high school for basketball practice.

The foundation of a hard work ethic and a ferocious competitive nature paved the way for Sloan’s rise to stardom.

Sloan played on several great McLeansboro teams in the late-50s. In his junior season, he helped guide his squad to a 19-6 record for coach Gene Haile. He followed that up with a senior season most kids would dream of: 26 wins, 3 losses. He was named to the All-State team.

He would later guide the Evansville Purple Aces to two Division II national championships. He became known as “the Original Bull” shortly after the startup Bulls franchise drafted him in the 1966 expansion draft. The rest was history—a brilliant 10-year career in Chicago as a player and nearly three more as a head coach on West Madison before becoming a legend in Salt Lake City.

But it was his small-town roots that made Jerry Sloan all the more genuine.

He would return to McLeansboro several times in 1984 —the year he became an assistant with the Utah Jazz— to watch his high school team play. His son, Brian, led the Foxes to the Class A state championship that year, going 35-0 in the process. Brian went on to play for Bobby Knight at Indiana.

Sloan would return frequently to this Southern Illinois town many times during his run with the Jazz— a run where he only finished below .500 once and racked up an astonishing career 1,221 wins. Hamilton County High School, formerly known as McLeansboro, dedicated its gym in Sloan’s honor in Dec. 2012. A road in McLeansboro is now called Jerry Sloan Avenue.

In a statement, a representative from McLeansboro High School said the following:

“Today is a sad day for Hamilton County and the Foxes. Coach Jerry Sloan has passed away. Coach Sloan graduated from McLeansboro High School in 1960 and was always a hometown boy. Whenever he returned he was just one of us. He will be greatly missed. RIP Coach Sloan.”

McLeansboro will always be Sloan Country.

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Michigan recruit J.J. McCarthy to transfer from Nazareth to Florida's IMG Academy

Michigan recruit J.J. McCarthy to transfer from Nazareth to Florida's IMG Academy

J.J. McCarthy, the state’s top-ranked high school quarterback and overall player according to Rivals, is transferring from Nazareth Academy to IMG Academy in Florida.

McCarthy made the announcement on his Twitter page Monday afternoon.

The news sent shock waves throughout the national prep football landscape. McCarthy, committed to play at Michigan, led the Roadrunners to an IHSA 7A second place finish back in November. As a sophomore in 2018, he threw for over 3,200 yards and 36 touchdowns. It culminated in a state title win and a 13-1 season.

The move makes sense for McCarthy, as he will team up with offensive lineman Greg Crippen, a fellow Michigan commit. According to Rivals, McCarthy (6-foot-2, 195 pounds) is ranked as the No. 5 pro-style quarterback and No. 33 overall recruit in the country.

The loss is a huge one for head coach Tim Racki and company at the La Grange Park school. That said, the Roadrunners are one of the dominant programs in IHSA football, compiling a 38-4 record the past three seasons with three state titles in the previous six campaigns.

The big questions: Will other high-caliber Illinois high school athletes follow McCarthy? When will the IHSA commit to a fall sports schedule? What will Illinois high school football look like in the fall? What guidelines will be in place? There are many uncertainties.

What is known: The IHSA chose to cancel the state basketball tournament and all 2020 spring sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Illinois is currently in a phased reopening of businesses and other institutions. Florida is ahead of Illinois in respect to some of those aforementioned facilities.

The risk, or perhaps the unknown, was worth it for McCarthy and his family. Will Florida —or other states, including Illinois— even be cleared to play football come August? Will his move be a productive one in retrospect?

Time will tell.