Preps Talk

Super sophomore AJ Casey makes Tinley Park intriguing team

Super sophomore AJ Casey makes Tinley Park intriguing team

When AJ Casey transferred from Simeon to Tinley Park in June it made news all over the country.

It was surprising for many to see Illinois' best sophomore, and a potential five-star national talent, leave one of the most storied high school basketball programs in the nation for a program that hasn't claimed a regional title since 2008. Simeon has seven IHSA state titles in school history. Tinley Park has three regional titles. 

But the move to the Titans puts the 6-foot-9 forward closer to where he went to middle school (Arbor Park in Oak Forest) and grew up. Casey lived with his father in Chicago as a freshman before moving back in with his mother in Tinley Park for sophomore year. 

From a basketball perspective, Casey has the skill level and size to be an All-Area player as early as this season for Tinley Park. On Sunday the sophomore was one of the best players on the floor at the annual Pangos Frosh/Soph All-Midwest Camp in La Grange. Among a loaded group of underclass prospects from all over the region with many future Division I prospects on the floor in the camp's All-Star game, Casey was one of the camp's top players as he made plays all over.

More limited to an interior role with Simeon during his freshman season on a veteran team that didn't need to run consistent offense through him, Casey flourished in the open floor of the camp setting with the ball in his hands. Handling the ball and scoring, Casey looked comfortable in the post or facing up. Casey's overall versatility at forward shined through as his development on the perimeter will be fascinating to watch this season.

There hasn't been much to be excited about over the past 20 years when it comes to Tinley Park basketball. Having Casey enter the picture is a program-changer that gives the Titans a lot of interest from college coaches and area fans for the upcoming season. 

"We've got high expectations, of course. Especially for myself. We have kind of a tough schedule but we'll get through it," Casey said.  

Ranked as a top-20 national prospect in the Class of 2022 by some major recruiting services, Casey instantly becomes a go-to player at Tinley Park who should be asked to do much more than be a piece amongst many Division I talents. 

Finishing 14-11 with a 6-7 record in the South Suburban Blue last season, Tinley Park played in an underrated conference that featured six of seven members finishing above .500 for the season -- including strong teams in Hillcrest and Oak Forest. By joining that league, Casey adds a new level of intrigue for Tinley Park as they instantly become a team to watch.

"It's been real good. Polishing up my game. Fall, I've been focused more on the team. I've been building chemistry through fall league and things like that," Casey said.

Casey has taken recent unofficial visits to Illinois and Purdue as he's also planning on seeing Louisville in the near future. College recruiting is sure to pick up for Casey as he works his way through high school and gets closer to graduation. 

For now, it's premature to call Tinley Park anywhere near a top-25 program. But it's a long season and the Titans could develop into a team to watch to make a deep postseason run.

Casey gives Tinley Park a centerpiece to build around for the future that not many in the area can match. It also gives the Titans instant credibility entering this season. 

Edgy: Too many IHSA football 'Coach of the Year' candidates is a good thing

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Minooka High School

Edgy: Too many IHSA football 'Coach of the Year' candidates is a good thing

The football postseason also brings award season. And picking a winner in each of the various categories is never an easy task. From selecting the Player of the Year to Coach of the Year along with All-Area and All-State teams, fans can (and will) make a case for several quality names that are more than deserving of recognition. 

How does the Coach of the Year candidates look this season? 

It can be a near-impossible task to narrow down to just one name…or even a handful of names. NBC Sports Chicago managing editor Joe Collins and I tried to do just that on Wednesday.

In the not-too-distant past, various newspaper writers and such announced these awards before the end of the state playoffs. Personally, I never understood that on several levels. In my mind, the postseason counts and needs to be taken into consideration for such awards. That said, we always have coaches who do a fantastic job of turning programs around from the previous year. 

Take Joliet West Bill Lech, who led the Tigers to their first conference title in 50 years. He is more than worthy of consideration. The same goes for Erick Middleton at Marian Catholic. He led the Spartans, a team that had not won more than two games in a season since 2011, to a 5-4 regular season and a playoff berth this season. Glenbard North head coach Ryan Wilkens took it on the chin last season in the Panthers’ first season as members of the DuKane Conference. They posted an 0-9 record. All Wilkens did was lead the Panthers to a 7-3 mark in 2019—good for the second-round of the 7A state playoffs. How about Thornwood? Head coach Kenneth Smith guided the T-Birds from a 2-7 team to the state playoffs. The same goes for LaSalle-Peru's Jose Medina or Grant's Chris Robinson, whose teams had terrific turnaround seasons in 2019. 

But somehow, you need to have a metric for separating some of these worthy coaches from the others. For me, that metric is what happens in the playoffs. A deeper postseason run undoubtedly helps to eliminate the logjam for Coach of the Year honors. 

So should head coaches at “power programs” be excluded from Coach of the Year honors? Does having a roster stacked with talent and numbers and depth mean you have done any less of a job in 2019 compared to others? Meaning, the likes of, say, Lincoln-Way East’s Rob Zvonar or H-F’s Craig Buzea shouldn't be under consideration? Do we just expect them to roll the helmets onto the field and expect victories week in and week out? If it was only that easy. 

In Class 8A, we have some fantastic coaches with stories that are still adding chapters. Take Minooka (Who?). I'm willing to bet that more Brother Rice fans have been to Mars than Minooka; however, the Indians are undefeated and looking to advance to the semifinals. They feature a staff filled with Hall of Fame coaches, led by former Downers Grove South Hall of Fame head coach John Belskis. And Hall of Fame coach Terry McCombs, who is a 50-year veteran in the IHSA, is an assistant coach for Belskis. How's that for having a partner who has been there and done that more than a few times?

How about Warren Township head coach Bryan McNulty? The Blue Devils have gone from a second-tier/also-ran football program in the North Suburban conference to a powerhouse in two short seasons. The 2019 squad brings a new meaning to “Fright Fest” in Gurnee these days. 

Another somewhat misguided opinion for some fans is that they feel coaches at private schools shouldn't be considered for any Coach of the Year awards because "they recruit" their roster. So the job that, say, Loyola's John Holecek has done in getting the Ramblers to the level of success they've achieved isn't worthy? Or look at Mount Carmel head coach Jordan Lynch. Is the job he has done this season, leading the undefeated Caravan to a top seed under one of the brightest spotlights week in and week out, not deserving of an award? Nazareth Academy's Tim Racki has propelled the Roadrunners to another deep postseason run. Should we just ignore this? Same goes for Joliet Catholic (Jake Jaworski)  and St. Francis (Bob McMillen)? Or that both Marist and Brother Rice, both of whom came into the postseason with 5-4 records and have since rolled in 8A, don't deserve a mention? Come on. 

What about the Chicago Public League coaches who endured the recent teachers strike. They got their teams ready under the most trying of circumstances. Several of those schools won IHSA playoff games. How can anyone say that Phillips head coach Troy McAllister isn't worthy after leading the Wildcats into the 7A quarterfinals? All they’ve done is compete with a mid 4A-sized enrollment and a dedication to play "up" to 7A just because they want to compete at the highest level possible. How can you not love that in any coach? 

I also include the entire state of Illinois in my Coach of the Year award. Heck, why not make this an even-harder task than it already is? In all seriousness, has anyone been able to get his program to the top and remain at the top more effectively than East St. Louis Darren Sunkett? Has anyone noticed that Glenwood is back and a state-wide power under head coach David Hay? Or that Rochester Derek Leonard just keeps winning games and titles year in and year out and now is locked in to winning the Rockets’ first state title in 5A. Or veteran head coach Dave Bates at Auburn? They just knocked off 2A power Maroa-Forsyth last Saturday and are full steam ahead to the quarterfinals against another power in St. Theresa after going 4-5 in 2018. Pana’s Trevor Higgins has won despite a trying offseason where he lost his four-year-old son in a tragic accident.

I'll make you a deal. Give me another 2-3 weeks and I'll be able to come up with a much clearer picture on the 2019 Coach of the Year award. Until then. let's see how things shake out over these next few remaining weeks of the season and see so many good coaches and stories continue to take shape. 

Preps Basketball Power Rankings No. 13 Lincoln Park

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NBC Sports Chicago

Preps Basketball Power Rankings No. 13 Lincoln Park

School: Lincoln Park

2018-19 record: 23-8 (7-2 Public League Red-North/West)

Postseason results: Lost to Riverside-Brookfield in Class 4A regional finals.

Players to watch: The backcourt of junior guards Ismail Habib and Julio Montes were outstanding last season as they showed poise and scoring ability. Both Habib and Montes are creative off the dribble and capable of knocking down jumpers. Senior big man Romelle Howard has a chance to be a force after some strong showings during the summer.

Why they're in the power rankings: Last season was a successful one for the Lions. They established themselves as a consistent top-25 program with a great returning talent base for the future. With a top returning backcourt, Lincoln Park should remain one of the city's best teams this season.    

Did you know? Playing one of the toughest schedules in the area last season, Lincoln Park managed its first 20-win season in a decade.