Future looks bright for Waukegan

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Here’s a perspective on what we’re dealing with in terms of girls basketball at Waukegan.

Last season, Vernon Hills High won a total of 30 games.

Waukegan has won 24 total games … in the last six seasons. To be fair, this season isn’t over yet, so it’s not six total seasons yet, but you get the point.

And here’s the other point about girls basketball at Waukegan: The community is producing some high-end players who are walking through the doors and into Waukegan as freshmen.

Problem is, they’re walking out those doors before graduation day.

The Bulldogs has been bitten hard and deep by the ugly eight-letter word “transfer.”

Consider just this year:

*Zion-Benton is likely going to win 20-plus games and the North Suburban Conference Lake Division title with a starting lineup that includes talented senior forward/center Tyvena Scafe.

*North Chicago could win 20-plus games and capture the North Suburban Conference Prairie Division title with a starting lineup that includes star junior forward Kylah Collins.

Two years ago, Scafe was playing for Waukegan. Last year, Collins was playing for Waukegan High.

Before them came Syerra Cunningham, whose now a freshman playing women’s hoops at SIU-Edwardsville. She played three seasons at Waukegan, then transferred to Zion-Benton for her senior year.

Fact is, if Scafe and Collins were playing for Waukegan right now, the team wouldn’t be 2-13, and this story would be about the present instead of the future.

Which, even without the departed stars, still looks pretty bright.

For one, new coach Pete Krackenberger learned his craft while assisting Ron Ashlaw when the former Waukegan boys basketball coach was producing winning season after winning season after winning season.

So, Krackenberger knows what it takes to win.

Second, the program finally has some stability. Krackenberger is the third coach and three years for the Bulldogs.

It’s hard for girls to learn when how they’re being taught changes from season to season.

Krackenberger is evaluated after this season, he’s a lock to return based on the fact that though the wins aren’t there, the improvement is, and the players are working hard and hustling.

Sooner, but most likely later, that effort will pay off in the win column.

That’s because, while effort is essential, in the long run, turning things around also requires talent.

And talent has arrived.

Freshman Brielle Johnson can be one of those marquee pieces for the next three years. She’s a versatile forward, and while she’s still getting used to the varsity level, the ability to dominate games seems to be in her future. She led the Bulldogs with 14 points and 7 rebounds on Monday in a loss to Warren.

“She’s a fabulous freshman. She’s a great student. She’s a good kid and a hard worker,” said Krackenberger. “She has all the potential in the world. Right now, she’s learning — and it’s not through any fault of her own — what it means to play at the varsity level.

“She’s starting to get there, with acclimating herself to the speed and consistency she needs to have. The athleticism and drive is definitely there.”

While Johnson isn’t surrounded by all-staters, she is playing with older girls who are teaching her the other important aspects of the game.

Johnson’s learning those important things from players like senior guards Markiera Reed and Natasha Ortiz.

Reed has been part of the losing a long time, but she still gives it her all in practices and in games.

“Things are coming along well. We’re working hard in practice. We just take things game-by-game and focus on getting better. We’re seeing it in the games, like we saw it in the game tonight,” she said after playing a good Warren team tough from start to finish. “We have great chemistry. We’re together every day, inside and outside of school.”

Ortiz, too, can see the improvement on game days when the Bulldogs can hang with teams that have more talent.

“We’ve been able to take what we learn in practice and transfer it over to the games,” she said. “We all have heart. We all love basketball.”

Added Reed: “We have to keep pushing ourselves and staying positive. We can’t let ourselves have the same attitude we maybe had in past years.”

In the 55-38 loss to Warren, Waukegan showed all facets of its game — good and bad.

With their quickness and unselfishness, there are possessions where the Bulldogs look every bit as skilled as the top teams in the area. A steal and two passes later, the ball is in the hands of someone wide open for a layup. A reversal or kick-out generates an open three. But between these possessions, the Bulldogs go through stretches plagued by turnovers as they rush play and force passes.

“When we rush, that’s where the learning curve catches up to us,” Krackenberger said. “When we slow things down and run things we know how to run, we’re learning how to play good, fundamental basketball, and it’s showing with the things we’re doing.

“In our two wins, we were able to press and get up and down. In those games, we’d pitch the ball ahead and score in transition. Some of the other teams we play, especially in the CSL, they get back a little better, and they’re going to take charges and take you out of that. You also have to be able to play in the halfcourt, and I thought we did a nice job of that against Warren.”

The coach, and the players, can see the improvement from Nov. 1 until now.

“You can coach them in basketball terms now, which you couldn’t necessary do in November,” Krackenberger said. “There’s still a big upcurve, but the effort has never been questioned.

“They are all really nice kids, and they really care about each other. They play for each other. It’s not about the record. They buy into what we’re trying to do, but they’re also seeing their hard work pay off.

“They know that things work, but they also know that right now ,we’re behind the learning curve compared to some of the teams on our schedule. So, we see it in spurts. Our goal against Warren was to keep it closer than it wound up, but that’s not for a lack of effort.”

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