Last week Will King heard it in the halls.
The Glenbrook South point guard was asked if he thought the Titans could keep their upcoming matchup against conference foe and highly-ranked Evanston within 20 points?
“I just thought to myself, ‘What? Within 20? We think we can beat them,’” said King, a senior who is averaging 14 points a game.
And that’s exactly what King and his teammates did last Thursday, knocking off the No. 2 ranked team in impressive fashion, 61-54, at the Titan Dome in Glenview.
But what King heard from classmates is the mentality and expectation coach Phil Ralston was immediately dealt with when he was hired last year. Ralston, who had a very successful run at Geneva and was the City/Suburban Hoops Report Coach of the Year in 2015, knew what he was getting into.
Ralston viewed it as a “great challenge” and one he was excited for when he took the job. There were so many pluses, which is why he left Geneva for Glenbrook South. But …
This was a program coming off a 9-18 campaign with only one winning season since the 2005-2006 season. That’s the year Glenbrook South won a regional championship and finished 25-5. But there had been a string of losing seasons and just two 20-win seasons and four regional titles in the program’s entire history.
While researching the job and soon after he was hired, Ralston said he heard “inklings” of there being some young talent in the program. But as it typically is in any first season with any first-year coach, especially at a downtrodden basketball program, there were struggles.
There were plenty of competitive losses en route to a 9-19 season a year ago. There was also plenty of youth. But the pains of last year went beyond the inexperience and the won-loss record.
“We all had no idea what to expect,” King said of the first year playing for their new coach. “We were unsure of what he wanted, how he wanted it, what his expectations really were. We weren’t used to what he wanted and expected. Plus we knew our program was a struggling one.”
Ralston admits he was “naive” in thinking that all that was in place at Geneva, all that he and his staff and players had built there –– from the expectations to the standards to implementing the system –– would easily evolve and be in place sooner than later at Glenbrook South.
“I took those things for granted,” says Ralston of the commitment to the standards that had been built somewhere else.
Then not seeing the results during the season –– the Titans were winless in the rugged Central Suburban League South –– didn’t help. There was never that moment or stretch of wins where the players in the program could clearly see and understand, as Ralston says, “the method to the madness.”
“We were competitive at times last year, but we were never able to take that big step,” says Ralston. “We had to scratch and claw for everything last year.”
But after the season, Ralston and the large contingent of returning players re-dedicated themselves.
“We said we had to double the effort, make a bigger commitment in the summer,” Ralston said. “They put in the hard work.”
King, for one, is vastly improved. The heady point guard with size was told when the season ended he needed to be in better physical shape. Months later King could be found running the streets of Glenview, Ralston says, doing what he needed to do.
Junior Dom Martinelli put in a ton of time into his perimeter shooting, trying to speed up his release and become a better all-around scorer. The proof of the hard work is seen in the scintillating numbers he’s churned out, including averaging 23 points a game and being named MVP of the Thanksgiving tournament.
Each player –– from King and Martinelli to senior shooter/defender Mac Hubbard, senior guard Gavin Morse and Jimmy McMahon –– put serious time and commitment in during the offseason.
But the individual improvement pales in comparison to the building of belief and expectation in a program.
“Coach Ralston has brought new life to the program,” says Martinelli. “He came in and told us he wanted to compete and win conference and regional titles. I don’t think we’ve thought that way around here in a long time.”
No, it didn’t happen overnight. However, this group came together through the rigors of last season and through the work in the offseason to put themselves in the position they’re in right now –– an unbeaten team ranked in the top 25 and a win over mighty Evanston under its belt.
“It gives them confidence,” say Ralston of the win over Evanston. “People have all told them they aren’t supposed to beat Evanston or New Trier or Maine South. People told me that. It’s tough going into a game thinking you can’t win a game, so it was a chance to get that monkey off their back.”
And the win over Evanston last week provided some validation.
King says the win shows Glenbrook South is “legit” and added “there is a great vibe and confidence” around the team. But as excited as King says he and his teammates were last Thursday night following the win, the maturity of the group showed up the next day.
“We talked on Friday as a team that we have to move on,” King said. “We talked how we don’t want to let this be the highlight of our season”
Ralston knows there is a lot of work still to be done and that each game in the CSL South is a “meat grinder.”
“We have to continue to buy in,” says Ralston in fashionable coach speak. “We have to continue to have focused practices, because we can see there is so much to work on. The win was big. But we have to prep for one game at a time and try to keep the distractions [of the Evanston win and rankings] out of the way.”
Nonetheless, it’s still a far cry from where this program and team was 12 months ago. The course of action has been set and establishing the culture has begun.
Now the wins and results are following.
Follow Joe Henricksen and the City/Suburban Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport