The two boys basketball teams in North Suburban Conference Lake Division that weren’t hit with major graduation losses this year were the two best teams — Stevenson and Lake Forest.
The other major contenders spent all last year chasing the league powers, and it would that they’ll have to run even faster this winter in order to keep up in Lake County’s toughest conference.
That’s especially true at Warren High in Gurnee.
Gone are big man Greg Swane, high-scoring Eric Gillespie, and guards Adrian Deere, James Betori, and Dominic Cuevas.
The Blue Devils return one full-time starter in senior Jovan Jokic. Illinois-bound tight end Caleb Reams, the only other notable contributor returning for the Blue Devils, can provide a presence in the post when he joins the team after the football playoffs.
What the Blue Devils do have is a large collection of viable guards with slightly different skill sets. Perimeter shooting, and all the positives and negatives that come with it, were the most significant part of the offense in a recent triple-overtime loss to Highland Park — yet another area powerhouse — in the Let’s Play Hoops Sunday Fall League at the Libertyville Sports Complex.
At times in that game, the Blue Devils played with four players behind the arc calling for the ball.
Third-year head coach Ryan Webber will be tasked with mixing and matching those skill sets to cover the team’s defensive and rebounding needs and ensure the Blue Devils don’t live and die solely by the three.
One way the Blue Devils can do that is with Webber’s 2-2-1 ball press, which can turn defense into easy baskets. With a significant part of the team already having two years of the system under their belts, the Blue Devils should, in theory, be able to wreak some serious havoc with it.
Jokic (eight points against Highland Park) has become a solid ball handler and perimeter shooter, but at 6-4 he can also play around the paint and provide much-needed rebounding. He will likely be the hub that the other pieces rotate around when the season gets under way.
A pair of promising sophomores made key contributions against Highland Park. Juwan Perry (team-high 14 points) showed the ability to hit shots from a number of spots on the floor, and Jayson Dorsey made a mark as a blue-collar guard who can defend, rebound, and handle the ball.
Senior Jake Falish, who didn’t play basketball last winter, hit four threes, and was 3-for-3 behind the arc in the final five minutes of regulation to help send the game to overtime.
The Blue Devils also got offensive contributions from Scott Gordon (10 points) and Jon Lewis (nine points).
However, defense was the key in overcoming a 40-29 halftime deficit as the ball pressure made a difference against a quality opponent.
As for how things are shaping up this fall, here’s Jokic’s take on all things Blue Devils:
“We have a lot of new faces. We have a couple of sophomores, Jayson Dorsey and Juwan Perry, who bring a lot of intensity, especially on defense,” he said. “I do get on them a little bit because Coach (Webber) wants me to get these guys ready for the season, but they play hard.
“We have a kid who didn’t play last year because he decided to focus on baseball, Jake Falish, who can help a lot offensively,” Jokie added. “We’ll probably have some sets for him on the perimeter.”
Jokic noted that the graduation losses have left holes that must be filled.
“Obviously, losing Eric, Greg, Adrian, and James, from an offensive standpoint, is going to be tough, but I think our defensive game is going to make up for that,” he said. “I also think you’ll see us doing more as a team offensively.”
As for being the tallest veteran player on the team, Jokic knows it’s as much about the size of the heart as it is about the size of the player.
“We just have to stay disciplined,” he said. “No matter how big a player is, you can still get in there and box people out. If you look at Stevenson, they don’t have a lot of size, but they still get boards. We just have to get after it.”
The senior also is a big fan of the Let’s Play Hoops Sunday Fall League, in which the players coach themselves.
“I think it’s really helping us bond,” Jokic said. “Early on, our individual games didn’t really mix, so it was kind of hard, but we’ve playing after skills (workouts) every day, and we’re coming out here and competing. It is getting a lot better. The bonding is important. So is getting used to the intensity, especially for the younger guys.”