Bears

St. Rita's Hicks: State's most underrated player?

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St. Rita's Hicks: State's most underrated player?

Tony Hicks still remembers when St. Rita basketball coach Gary DeCesare coaxed him into a meeting after his freshman year. Hicks was recruited out of McKinley elementary school in South Holland to quarterback the football team at St. Rita. He had only played basketball for a couple of years but admitted that he didn't take the game seriously.

But DeCesare was persuasive. He had seen Hicks play in open gym and, looking at him straight in the eyes, boldly predicted that the youngster could excel in basketball if he had the desire and put in the time in the off-season to sharpen his skills.

"He got me thinking," Hicks said. "That summer I started to get good. I started to like the game a lot more. I wouldn't be where I am if he hadn't talked to me about basketball.

"I felt basketball was more of a challenge. I enjoyed being in the gym and working on my own and imitating my favorite player, Kobe Bryant. I lost interest in football. At times, I wonder how good I could have been in football. But I don't regret it. I quit playing football before my sophomore year."

Football's loss is basketball's gain. Hicks, a 6'2 senior, has emerged as one of the leading student-athletes in the class of 2013. He is committed to Pennsylvania. He has a 3.6 grade-point average on a scale of 4.0 in honors classes, scored 27 on his ACT and ranks No. 60 in a class of 165. And he is averaging 32 points per game.

"He is one of the most underrated players in the state," DeCesare said. "He is a hard worker. He has improved every year. He is as good as anybody in the state. His work ethic separates him from other players."

"Hicks is a very good scorer and an absolute steal for Penn," said recruiting analyst Roy Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye. "He should be All-City this year. He is a great kid as well. He is a scorer, not a point guard, but that is fine."

Hicks took DeCesare's advice and got better...and better. He averaged 11 points per game as a sophomore, 15 as a junior. In his first three games this season, he scored 95 points. He has worked on his ball-handling and shooting, relentlessly. He spent three hours a day, taking 500 shots in the gym around the corner from his house.

"The coach let me know that basketball isn't about what you do on the court but what you do off the court, how you carry yourself," Hicks said. "If you want to be good you can do anything you want to. It all depends on the amount of time you are willing to put in and sacrifice to where you want to go."

Penn was impressed. They recruited Hicks harder than anyone else. In the end, he chose Penn over Loyola, South Florida, Tennessee, Dayton, Ohio, George Mason and Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

"They showed me they really wanted me," he said. "I was hesitant at first because I felt it would be too learny and book-smart. But they were down-to-earth and genuine, cool people. They showed up at all my games and showed they really wanted me."

Now that his college decision has been made, Hicks is into concentrating on the 2011-12 season. He is the leader of one of the top teams in the state. The Mustangs are 2-1 after Tuesday's 74-71 loss to unbeaten Marist and have a date this weekend in the Gonzaga Classic in Washington D.C.

Last week, Hicks scored 22 of his 31 points in the second half and had three steals and three assists as St. Rita, despite the absence of two starters, edged De La Salle 66-64 in double overtime.

"It was a great team victory," DeCesare said. "Everybody contributed in their own way. Hicks was our leading scorer but we don't win without our post defense, free throws and offensive rebounding. We can't control everything. We must be prepared. Every game is a big game. As you build a program, you have to be ready to play every night, especially in the Catholic League."

DeCesare was well prepared when he arrived at St. Rita three years ago. A native New Yorker, he grew up in the Bronx. A life-long New York Yankees fan, he has had season tickets for 25 years. Between first base and home plate, not far from Rudy Giuliani and Billy Crystal. Thurman Munson is his hero.

But basketball was his game. He played and coached at St. Raymond's High School and played at Iona College. Later, he joined Jerry Wainwright's staff at Richmond and followed Wainwright to Chicago when he became head coach at DePaul. When Wainwright was fired, DeCesare wasn't sure what to do.

"I was walking home from church with (Fenwick coach) John Quinn and he said a job had opened up at St. Rita," DeCesare recalled. "I looked at the web site, called (athletic director) Mike Zunica, met for three hours at breakfast and got the job.

"High school coaching is the purest form of coaching. In my 17 years at St. Raymond's, I had over 40 kids go to Division I schools. I wanted to do that again. I knew that St. Rita had a lot of potential, a great school, a terrific sports program. I knew it had a history in basketball but it had been overshadowed by other sports."

St. Rita was 14-13 in DeCesare's first year, 12-14 last season. He had promoted several talented sophomores to the varsity and anticipated a successful season. But he lost 6-7 A.J. Avery to a broken wrist on the fifth day of practice. The Mustangs lost seven games by five points or less.

"It was a great learning experience," he said. "How good is this year's team? At full strength, we have a good chance to do well, to compete against anyone. We have a lot of versatility, a lot of guys. We can play big or small and do what we need to do to win, whether it means pressuring opponents or pushing the ball up the court."

At the moment, the Mustangs are without Avery, who is sidelined with the same wrist injury and likely won't return until after the holidays, and 6'2 sophomore guard Dominique Matthews, the team's second leading scorer who also is recovering from a wrist injury and is due to return on Dec. 21.

The healthy ones are Hicks, 5'9 senior point guard Cullen Foulkes, 6'5 sophomore Victor Law, 6'4 freshman Charles Matthews and 6'5 senior Michael Foody. Charles is Dominique's brother.

"I think we can have a 20-plus win season and make a run for the Catholic League and state titles," Hicks said. "It isn't about physical ability but about attitude. We know we can be good. We're taking the game more seriously. We challenge each other in practice."

And Hicks is eager to discard his "underrated" tag. His teammates claim he is one of the quietest players on the team. His parents always remind him that if he does what he is supposed to be doing on the court, people will take notice. If he continues to average 32 points per game, they won't be able to take their eyes off him.

"I feel I have a higher ceiling than what I have shown," he said. "I can play better."

That's a scary thought.

Projecting what the Bears' 53-man roster will look like

Projecting what the Bears' 53-man roster will look like

The Bears will begin training camp next week without many significant position battles — outside of kicker, of course — which stands as an indicator of how strong a roster Ryan Pace has built. But that doesn’t mean there won't be some intriguing decisions to be made in a month and a half, especially involving depth at some critical positions. 

So here’s a pre-training camp stab at projecting what the Bear’s 53-man roster will look like on the night of Sept. 5:

QUARTERBACKS (2): Mitch Trubisky, Chase Daniel
Missing the cut: Tyler Bray

These two guys are locked in, leaving Tyler Bray to likely return to the practice squad for another season. 

RUNNING BACKS (4): Tarik Cohen, Mike Davis, David Montgomery, Kerrith Whyte Jr. 
Missing the cut: Ryan Nall

Cohen, Davis and Montgomery are roster locks, leaving Whyte and Nall to compete for, likely, just one spot on the roster. Matt Nagy praised Nall during OTAs, and he could become a versatile option with the ability to play some fullback, but we’ll give the last spot to Whyte given his speed and the Bears’ focus on that trait in the offseason. 

WIDE RECEIVERS (6): Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Anthony Miller, Cordarrelle Patterson, Riley Ridley, Marvin Hall
Missing the cut: Javon Wims, Emanuel Hall, Taquan Mizzell, Tanner Gentry, Jordan Williams-Lambert, Thomas Ives

Robinson, Gabriel and Miller are locks, while Patterson’s contract structure ($5 million guaranteed, all in 2019) and Ridley’s draft slot (fourth round) easily get them on the team, too. That leaves Javon Wims, Marvin Hall, Emanuel Hall and a handful of others to compete for what probably is only one more spot on the 53-man roster. There’s not much separating those three heading into training camp, though Emanuel Hall’s sports hernia surgery sidelined him during OTAs, putting him a little behind the curve. Wims is the incumbent here but didn’t get on the field much in 2018, while Marvin Hall played a little with the Atlanta Falcons over the last two years. We’ll give the edge to Marvin Hall for now based on his speed and meager experience, but also with the knowledge that the Bears’ sixth receiver likely won’t be active on game days unless of an injury. 

TIGHT ENDS (5): Trey Burton, Adam Shaheen, Ben Braunecker, Bradley Sowell, Dax Raymond
Missing the cut: Ian Bunting, Jesper Horsted, Ellis Richardson

If Burton has to begin training camp on the PUP list, will he be ready for Week 1? Can Shaheen stay healthy for a full season? Those are perhaps the two biggest questions needing answers not only for this unit, but for the Bears’ offense as a whole. Burton’s 11th-hour injury prior to the Bears’ playoff loss to the Philadelphia Eagles limited how dynamic Nagy’s offense could be, while Shaheen’s preseason injury meant the Bears were ineffective when using 12 personnel during the regular season. The Bears need better depth behind Burton and Shaheen — Braunecker is a reliable special teamer with flexibility to play both the “U” and the “Y” spots, but can more much-needed depth emerge from a converted offensive lineman (Sowell) and a handful of undrafted free agents (Raymond, Bunting, Horsted, Richardson)? We’ll give Sowell (at the “Y” behind Shaheen) and Raymond (at the “U” behind Burton) the spots for now, but both will have to earn their way onto the roster during training camp. 

OFFENSIVE LINE (8): Charles Leno, James Daniels, Cody Whitehair, Kyle Long, Bobby Massie, Rashaad Coward, Ted Larsen, Alex Bars
Missing the cut: Cornelius Lucas, Joe Lowery, T.J. Clemmings, Blake Blackmar, Marquez Tucker, Jordan McCray, Sam Mustipher

The Bears moved Sowell to tight end thanks, in part, to their confidence in the development of Coward — a converted defensive lineman — to take over as their swing tackle in 2019. He’s still under construction as an NFL offensive lineman and will have to beat out a handful of challengers, including a five-year NFL reserve in Lucas, but Coward has the edge for a roster spot. The interior reserves are less clear, though: Larsen was brought back in free agency but only has $90,000 guaranteed on his one-year deal, while Bars played for O-line coach Harry Hiestand in college but is coming off an ACL/MCL injury that led to him going undrafted in April. Any of the other reserves could make a push, or the Bears could look to add interior depth on cut-down weekend. For now, though, Larsen, Bars and Coward make the most sense to slide behind the same starting five the Bears had to end 2018. 

DEFENSIVE LINE (6): Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Bilal Nichols, Roy Robertson-Harris, Jonathan Bullard, Nick Williams
Missing the cut: Abdullah Anderson, Jalen Dalton, Daryle Banfield, Jonathan Harris

This is the Bears’ deepest unit, with the only battle to see who will make the roster and wind up inactive on game days, as Williams was for all but two games in 2018. 

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER (5): Khalil Mack, Leonard Floyd, Aaron Lynch, Isaiah Irving, Chuck Harris
Cut: Kylie Fitts, Mathieu Betts, James Vaughters

Irving flashed during 2017’s and 2018’s preseasons, and might need to do so again to secure his spot on the Bears’ 2019 roster. But consider this an open battle for reserve roles behind Mack/Floyd/Lynch: Irving has the inside track to one spot but will have to earn it; while whoever flashes the most from the Harris/Fitts/Betts/Vaughters group should get another. We’ll go with Harris here — maybe Mack can take his fellow Buffalo alum under his wing during training camp. 

INSIDE LINEBACKER (4): Danny Trevathan, Roquan Smith, Nick Kwiatkoski, Joel Iyiegbuniwe
Cut: Josh Woods, Jameer Thurman, Kevin Pierre-Louis

Woods might be as close to the bubble as anyone on defense, and could force his way on to the roster with a strong preseason and a commitment to special teams. But with Kwiatkoski a reliable backup and he and Iyiegbuniwe being core special teamers, it’s hard to see Woods beating out any of those four for a spot right now. 

CORNERBACK (6): Kyle Fuller, Prince Amukamara, Buster Skrine, Kevin Toliver II, Duke Shelley, Sherrick McManis
Cut: Stephen Denmark, John Franklin III, Michael Joseph, Josh Simmons, Clifton Duck, Jonathon Mincy

There should be a strong competition among the reserve outside corners on this roster, with Toliver having the best shot but needing to fend off the raw athleticism of Denmark and Franklin as well as the talent of Joseph, who stuck on the practice squad last year after going undrafted out of Division III Dubuque. Shelley flashed during OTAs and minicamp during the spring and looks likely to wind up on the 53-man roster. While McManis worked at safety some during the spring, we’ll include him among the cornerbacks for now. 

SAFETY (4): Eddie Jackson, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Deon Bush, DeAndre Houston-Carson
Cut: Doyin Jibowu

Barring injury and a more permanent move to safety for McManis, there’s little that’ll change in this unit between now and Week 1.

SPECIALISTS (3): Greg Joseph (PK), Pat O’Donnell (P), Patrick Scales (LS)
Cut: Elliott Fry, Eddy Pineiro, John Wirtel

Surprise! While the battle between Fry and Pineiro will dominate the headlines in Bourbonnais, the “winner” isn’t guaranteed to be the Bears’ Week 1 kicker. So not only are those two competing against each other, they’re competing against the field, too. In this scenario, the Cleveland Browns keep fifth-round pick Austin Seibert and cut Joseph, who made 17 of 20 field goals (with a long of 51 yards) for them in 2018. The Bears could try to swing a trade for Baltimore’s Kaare Vedvik here, too. The larger point, though, is this: Pace may have to look outside the organization for his Week 1 kicker, and there will be some talent — like Joseph — available if he does. 

45 Days to Kickoff: Joliet West

45 Days to Kickoff: Joliet West

NBCSportsChicago.com preps reporter "Edgy" Tim O’Halloran spotlights 100 high school football teams in 100 days. The first 75 team profiles will focus on teams making strides across Chicagoland and elsewhere in the state. Starting Aug. 5, we’ll unveil the @NBCSPrepsTop 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 30.

School: Joliet West

Head coach: Bill Lech

Assistant coaches: Harry Hessling, Seandell Davis, Patrick Lauer, Terry Clarke, Diondrey Hood, Kevin Kusnik, Jeff Peterson, Nick Davis, Peter Nackovic, Dan Tito and Brett Gould

How they fared in 2018: 3-6 (3-6 Southwest Prairie Conference). Joliet West failed to qualify for the IHSA state football playoff field.

2019 Regular Season Schedule:

Aug. 30 @ Minooka

Sept. 6 vs Oswego

Sept. 13 @ Oswego East

Sept. 20 vs Yorkville

Sept. 27 @ Romeoville

Oct. 4 @ Plainfield East

Oct. 11 vs Joliet Central

Oct. 18 vs Plainfield South

Oct. 25 @ Plainfield Central

Biggest storyline: Can the Tigers make more positive steps as a program as they embark on the newly-realigned Southwest Prairie conference?

Names to watch this season: OL Hunter Brooks (Sr.) and FB/LB Tom Luedke (Sr.)

Biggest holes to fill: The Tigers graduated nearly their entire starting offensive skills group from a season ago. Junior RB Trent Howland is the lone returning starter back this fall. 

EDGY's Early Take: Joliet West posted just a 3-6 record in 2018 but that record was a bit misleading on several levels. The Tigers, under then-first year head coach Bill Lech, turned the program around on a lot of levels. Joliet West came within a few plays of potentially winning four of those six losses. If the Tigers can get their offense on track early this season (against a front-loaded schedule against four Southwest Prairie West crossover opponents) they will again challenge for an IHSA state football playoff spot.