Lake Zurich basketball is carving out niche at a ‘football school’

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Unless your school is so big that it can overpower you with the quantity and quality of athletes, Lake County high school sports seems to be an either-or proposition when it comes to fielding elite programs in football and basketball.

Antioch, for example, is a football school. Zion-Benton is basketball. Carmel is football. Mundelein, basketball.

If you follow prep sports in the county, then you know that the area’s most successful program in the last half-dozen years has been Lake Zurich’s — and that includes this year as the Bears are 6-0.

Yet, if you watch Lake Zurich compete in the Let’s Play Hoops fall boys basketball league that meets each Sunday at Trinity International University, you can’t help but take note the Lake Zurich team isn’t half-bad.

It’s not Stevenson-great or Zion-great or Lake Forest-very good, but the arrow’s definitely pointing up at a school where the community has wrapped its arms tightly around the football program, but has yet to totally embrace the roundball sport.

Perhaps, the Bears’ basketball time is coming.

Statistically, the Bears have beaten five of their six North SuburbanLake rivals at least once over the last two seasons (0-4 vs. Lake Forest), but the consistency in league play needed to be considered a contender has been elusive in back-to-back 15-16 seasons.

Alas, if one could have chosen a season for these Bears to make a significant move in the Lake, 2013-14 would probably not be the first choice, but that’s entirely a reflection on the strength of the league.

Based on what’s been on display at TIU on Sundays, being able to put basketball players at more spots on the floor has visibly elevated the level of play, and interest in the program is also on the rise, with the Bears’ fielding two teams in the fall league’s frosh-soph division.

“The last few years, we’ve really picked up the intensity in the offseason,” said junior guard Mike Travlos, who is ready for prime time. “We’ve been getting in the weight room three or four days a week. A lot of us are doing AAU. There’s more attention on developing kids when they’re younger, and it’s paying off with the way they’re developing now at the high school level.

“We’re usually a football school, but basketball has picked up in the area. We try to get the younger kids more involved and you’re starting to see the effects of that.”

The team’s other really good player is 6-3 senior wing Brad Kruse. Whereas Travlos plays with a visible intensity, there’s much less flash to Kruse’s game, but he has an incredible knack for being at the right spot on the floor.

When Kruse went down early in a recent Sunday game with a hamstring injury and did not return to action, Travlos elevated his intensity even further while shutting down Highland Park’s David Sachs, who came in leading the fall league in scoring. Corey Helgeson led the Bears with 13 points in a 55-47 win.

The Bears will get additional help inside when 6-8 Zach Wallace, a tight end on the football team, joins them following the IHSA playoffs. Figure that to be in early December.

Lake Zurich head coach Billy Pitcher was a spectator for the Highland Park game — the kids coach themselves — but he liked how his team played against a quality Highland Park squad and how they responded when Kruse went down with a hamstring injury:

“I think we have a little more depth now than we’ve had,” the coach said. “We have some football guys who aren’t here, but when Brad went down, guys stepped up. Corey Helgeson had a really nice game. He’s a slasher, kind of garbage guy, and he was there on Mike’s drives and missed shots, grabbing rebounds and loose balls. Jeff Zahery hit a big three. I really liked our effort.”

As for taking the huge next step and turning the NSC Lake’s Big 3 of Zion/Stevenson/Lake Forest into a Big 4, that may not happen this winter, but the Bear tracks that currently are all over the school’s parking lot and lead to the entrance to the football field might someday lead to the school’s gym.

“I think it’s just the mind-set for us,” Travlos said of competing with the big boys on the hardwood. “If we put our minds to it, we can be really good. We have to get after it on both ends of the court and be aggressive.”

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