Kevin Walsh would have enrolled at Prospect High School in Mount Prospect if he hadn't chosen St. Viator in Arlington Heights. But St. Viator was a no-brainer. His father went there. So did two older siblings. And his younger brother will follow him next year. It was inevitable.
There were two other reasons:
He was looking for a good education. He wants to study business or marketing or sports management in college. He ranks in the 93.23 percentile of his class and scored 33 on his ACT.
He wants to play basketball in college, too. The 6-3 senior has interest from Division II and II schools but he is hoping to attract looks from Division I schools.
Before enrolling, he was aware that St. Viator didn't have a reputation as a basketball power. Two years ago, the Lions lost to Chicago Marshall in a Class 3A supersectional, the farthest the school has ever advanced in the state tournament, only the third time beyond a regional.
"I had been going to St. Viator games since sixth grade and I knew they hadn't been very successful. But we're trying to change the mold. We hope to turn around the program with our class," Walsh said. "We have good chemistry on and off the court. We had talent two years ago but this team is potentially as good."
Coach Mike Howland said he is sold on his 7-0 team, which will face a major test against once-beaten Marist Friday on its home floor, then will host Hersey on Saturday. After playing Palatine next Tuesday, St. Viator will compete in the Wheeling Holiday Tournament.
"I know how good we are," Howland said. "I want the final game (of the regular season) on Feb. 25 at Notre Dame to be for the conference title. I want the kids to keep working hard every day to get better. We are extremely talented but at some point we will run into somebody more talented than us and that's when our experience, execution and hard work will pay off."
In his first year, Howland is anxious to make history and establish a basketball tradition at his alma mater. A 1998 graduate of St. Viator, the 31-year-old Howland once was the East Suburban Catholic's player of the year and served as assistant coach for eight years before landing the top job.
"I inherited a great group at all levels," he said. "We returned four starters from a 14-13 team. Our sophomore team was 23-1 last year. A lot of young kids are playing well. And we have a talented freshman and sophomore on the varsity. This team has the potential to be the best ever at the school."
Howland is excited because his team has depth (10 deep), scoring balance, athleticism and weapons at every position. The Lions are averaging 65 points per game while allowing only 44.
"I'm excited about the team and the start we have gotten off to," he said. "I was a point guard growing up. I liked to get up and down the floor. It's fun for the kids. And we play such a good pressure man-to-man defense that teams have trouble scoring against us."
Where is the talent coming from?
"We're getting good kids coming into school. Our feeder program is doing a great job of developing kids. Our talent pool is pulling in more kids at different ages," the coach said. "We're playing an exciting brand of basketball--up-tempo on offense and getting after people on defense. Kids are watching and want to be a part of our exciting style of play. We're playing with emotion. It's fun to watch and fun to be a part of."
Those who are providing the fun are Walsh (14.5 ppg), 5-10 senior point guard D.J. Morris (10 ppg, 5 assists), 6-3 sophomore Ore Arogundade (14 ppg, 6.5 rpg), 6-5 senior Chris Myjak (6 ppg, 8 rpg), 6-2 senior guard Dan Ford (6 ppg) and 5-11 freshman guard Mark Falotico (5 ppg).
Myjak is a three-year starter, Ford is the defensive stopper while Falotico is the sixth man.
"We have to continue to defend as we have been and we have to continue to be unselfish with the ball," Howland said. "We are hard to guard because we have five or six kids who can go for 20 points on any given night. Teams can't key on one or two of our players."
Another advantage is opponents will discover that the Lions are tougher than they look, thanks to strength coach Matt Seay, who came from Illinois-Chicago. Under Seay's guidance, the players went through extensive and intense four-day-a-week off-season workout sessions.
"Those basketball workouts have paid off," Howland said. "(Seay) has gotten our kids excited to get in the weight room. We set the tone from a physical standpoint. We don't get pushed around or pushed off the ball. We rebound well and we are prepared for the wear and tear of the season."
Meanwhile, Howland believes his team's success will enhance Walsh's college opportunities. Walsh wants to play at the highest level he can, hopefully Division I. He has worked hard to test himself against quality competition, to see if he could play in college.
"We underachieved last year," Walsh said. "Now we put as much pressure on the ball as we can. It's not too difficult to buy into defense. We know it is a key component in the game. We know the offense will hit cold streaks, times when shots aren't falling, when we are making poor choices, not scoring as much as usual. Then you have to lean on defense."
He relates his keen intelligence to his leadership responsibilities on the floor. His parents are college graduates who understand the importance of a good education. From the get-go, they pushed their son to be a better-than-average student. And he learned to use his smarts on the basketball court.
"In film study, I watch other teams and learn to read defenses and study plays, where players should be on the floor," he said. "I have to make sure everyone is in the right spot. If they are struggling, I tell them to keep their head up. We have to work as hard as we can to fulfill our potential."