West Aurora has produced many outstanding basketball players since the 1950s...from John Biever to Jim Krelle to Bill Small to Matt Hicks to John Bryant to Jay Bryant to Ron Hicks to Larry Hatchett to James Malone to Jeff Fichtel to Kenny Battle to Mike Simmons to Billy Taylor to Justin Cerasoli to Jason Thomas to Shaun Pruitt to Juwan Starks.
Add Jontrell Walker to that elite list.
Walker, a 6-foot junior point guard, is a three-year starter who is averaging 24 point per game for a 7-1 team that hopes to challenge top-seeded Simeon in the Pontiac Holiday Tournament. The Blackhawks meet Lockport on Thursday in the opening round.
"He is a big-time prospect who already is getting big-time interest from colleges," said West Aurora coach Gordon Kerkman.
In his 37th year, Kerkman has won 742 games, ninth among the winningest coaches in state history. He produced a state championship team in 2000, a state runner-up in 1997 and three third-place finishers in 1980, 1984 and 2004.
Walker remembers the 2004 team that included Pruitt, Cerasoli and Thomas and the 29-2 team of 2006 that lost to Peoria Richwoods in the state quarterfinals. His older brother Johnny played on both teams.
"I grew up in the program," Jontrell said. "The farthest back I remember is when my brother was on the varsity as a sophomore in 2004. I followed them Downstate. In 2006, when he was a senior, they lost only two games. They dominated every game. I admired their style of play, how key players stepped up and made big shots. Playing in Peoria, it was a great atmosphere."
Now Walker hopes to go back to Peoria. Last year's team was 25-6, losing to Proviso East in the supersectional. With Walker and three other starters returning, West Aurora is in position to make another run at the state finals. According to tradition, the Blackhawks know what it takes to get there.
"Last year, we were one game away from going to Peoria. That's been our goal since our freshman year," Walker said. "We had a drought for a few years after 2006. But we started to bring back the tradition last year. We have a winning program. We're supposed to be a Downstate contender every year.
"This should be our year. Four of us have been on the varsity for the last three years. We've been through struggles, up and down. We have matured. We almost made it last year. We know we can make it this year. We feel we can win any game. Pontiac will show us how tough we are. If we get down, will we fight to come back?"
Kerkman can't wait to find out.
"If we can get to the semifinals and hook up with Peoria Manual, then face Simeon in the championship, we'll find out how good we are. If this is going to be one of our best teams, we must start playing more consistently. Up to now, we haven't been that dominant," he said.
"This team has good balance, a number of kids who can score and do a lot of things. Three starters have been on the varsity for three years and we have some very good sophomores. This is a very good group to coach. They play hard most of the time."
Walker is the leader, the go-to player, the difference-maker. He has visited Iowa and has interest from Marquette, DePaul, Tulsa, Rice, Nebraska-Omaha, North Dakota, South Dakota and Lehigh. With another year to showcase his skills, more high Division I interest can be expected.
But Kerkman thinks 6-foot-7 senior center Josh McAuley, who is averaging 10 points, seven rebounds and four blocks per game, deserves more attention than he is receiving. Very long and very intimidating inside, McAuley blocked eight shots in one game, five in another.
"A lot of people haven't heard about him," Kerkman said. "He has great potential. He plays bigger than he is."
Other starters are 6-foot senior guard Jayquan Lee (10 ppg) and the Thomas twins, 6-foot-2 seniors Spencer and Chandler, who average five points per game and are very aggressive on the boards and on defense.
Two sophomores come off the bench--6-foot-3 Roland Griffith and 5-foot-8 Matt Dunn.
In last Friday's 68-52 victory over Wheaton North, Walker scored 22 points and converted 10 of 13 free throws. The Blackhawks led by only four at halftime but broke away with a 10-0 burst in the third quarter that was keyed by McAuley's two three-point plays. McAuley finished with 13 points and four blocks. Spencer Thomas scored 14, Chandler Thomas 10.
This is Walker's team. Last year, he averaged 13.6 points per game. But he has a more aggressive approach this season.
"I am a point guard who looks to attack this year. I have to score more. But I also have to distribute the ball to my teammates to get them involved in the game," he said.
"I took it upon myself to be the leader this year and make an impact. I have to do what I have to do to help my team win. I'm a guard who likes to win. I can shoot but I can pass and get the big men involved. I just do what is needed to win the game. Did I expect to average 24 points per game? Not really. But I'm more aggressive this year. I'm not passing up open shots."
Last summer, Walker spent a lot of time improving his shooting touch.
"Every day, I took 500 shots from everywhere on the court. I knew I had to score more this year but I didn't have a particular number. Honestly, I'm surprised that I'm averaging 24 points per game but I knew I had to make more of an impact this year," he said.
"After watching Juwan Starks for the last two years, I felt this should be my year, to get in his shoes and carry the team. This team has a lot of chemistry from being together for so long. McAuley came right in and showed what he could do. He is another Starks."
Kerkman hasn't slacked off, not since the day he succeeded John McDougal in 1976. But he insists he has mellowed a bit.
"Old-timers and my former players would say I'm not as volatile as in the past. Every once in a while you have to cut loose. But I don't think I holler at kids as much as I used to. It's the aging process," he said.
"He pushes us every day. He never lets us slack off. He may be old but he still gets in your face and gets on you every time you don't do what you are expected to do. If he doesn't holler like he used to, I'd like to see what it was like back then," Walker said.
At 76, Kerkman still enjoys coaching. He retired from teaching 16 years ago. He still runs a mail courier business that he started 33 years ago. He has been slowed by two knee replacements and two herniated discs which have limited him to only a few rounds of golf in the last four years. "Some creaky moans," he said.
"Retirement can't be too far away. It's hard to tell. I'm just coaching now. I'll access my situation after the end of the year and see what the future holds," Kerkman said.
"We have some very nice kids. I have been blessed that has been the situation throughout my career. Very seldom have I had problem kids. It makes it a lot easier."
Kerkman still relishes the competition, matching up against good coaches and good teams. And he enjoys the teaching aspect, making his players better, and seeing them become successful on and off the court. "It's fun to work toward that," he said.
His philosophy hasn't changed. He learned from McDougal. He stresses defense, rebounding and taking care of the basketball. He prefers an up-tempo style. His teams run more than McDougal's. But there are limits.
"I watched some tape recently," he said. "A lot of teams get away from structured offenses and allow more freedom. We do, too. I don't mind up-tempo. But sometimes when you get too up-tempo, you take bad shots. We don't want them to get out of control."
Since the early 1980s, Kerkman has done one thing that no one else does. He allows his two assistants--currently Dan Batka, a former coach at Lake Park, and Paul Kieffer--to make all substitutions.
"They can do a better job of it than I can," Kerkman said. "They can concentrate more while I'm thinking about other things. It takes pressure off me. I still enjoy coaching. I don't know what I would do if I wasn't coaching."