Streamwood senior Keenon Cole’s dedication has paid off

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Streamwood’s Keenon Cole (32) gets around Jacobs’ RJ Anderson (30), Monday 02-25-19. Worsom Robinson/For the Sun-Times

Keenon Cole made two big decisions last summer.

One was to officially commit to Northern Illinois, the university that had always been there for him throughout the recruiting process, in spite of ongoing talks with a handful of other programs. The other was to stay at Streamwood, the high school with zero conference wins over the last two seasons, for his senior year.

Cole’s dedication to the Sabres’ long-maligned program has proven to be a wise decision.

Under the guidance of first-year coach Kent Payne, Streamwood (13-18) racked up a stunning eight wins in Upstate Eight conference play, more than its total from the prior six years combined. And on Monday, the Sabres, starting three sophomores, took another monumental step forward — they won a playoff game, holding off Jacobs 74-70 in the first round of the Class 4A South Elgin regional.

“Me playing through a lot of adversity, and playing on not as good a team as the teams we were playing, made me play harder and seek my goal,” Cole said. “I don’t really like things given to me, so that’s part of the reason I stayed at Streamwood, so we could make a name for ourselves.”

Streamwood’s Keenon Cole (32) slams down a dunk against Jacobs, Monday 02-25-19. Worsom Robinson/For the Sun-Times

Streamwood’s Keenon Cole (32) slams down a dunk against Jacobs, Monday 02-25-19. Worsom Robinson/For the Sun-Times

Streamwood may have a difficult time advancing beyond this point — it now has a date against top-seeded Cary-Grove on Tuesday — but even the 20-7 Trojans will have trouble slowing down Cole himself.

The 6-7 forward has averaged more than 25 points and 11 rebounds per game this season, reached 1,000 points in his high school career in November and has some major eye-openers in his game log, including two 40-point outings.

“(He’s improved) his ability to play on the perimeter, his ability to play off the dribble. His post play is really good. He’s really gotten better defensively. And he’s tougher — he’s got that edge to him,” Payne said. “He’s driven, and he plays with a lot of confidence, and when you put those two things together with the talent he has…”

On Monday, Cole looked like a hot knife slicing through a buttery Jacobs defense at times, beating frequent double- and triple-teams and working to evade one defender assigned to constantly face-guard him. His final stat line of 31 points — 10-of-15 from the field, 11-of-12 from the line — and 13 rebounds understated his impact on the game, especially on the offensive end.

His layup-and-one with just over a minute left, giving Streamwood a lead they wouldn’t relinquish, exemplified his impressive awareness, physicality and finishing skills all at once:

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“I just move in around in the post, leg whip and just find a way to get open — drag my man out and just play hard and get the ball,” Cole said.

Cole almost played a lot more games in South Elgin’s cavernous gym than just Monday’s neutral-site playoff matchup. When Paul Kowalyszyn resigned last spring at Streamwood, which at the time sported a 9-79 conference record dating back to 2011, Cole considered moving in with family in the South Elgin district so he could play for the Storm, who went 15-3 in conference this year.

But he decided to stick around after meeting Kent Payne and his son-slash-assistant, Cully, a former guard at Iowa and Loyola. Over the past eight months, the Paynes have changed the culture at Streamwood, and Cole and fellow senior Nikola Sinik have helped them do it.

Streamwood’s Keenon Cole (32) gets inside the paint for two points, Monday 02-25-19. Worsom Robinson/For the Sun-Times

Streamwood’s Keenon Cole (32) gets inside the paint for two points, Monday 02-25-19. Worsom Robinson/For the Sun-Times

“I knew who he was (coming in), I knew the talent he had, but he’s really grown throughout the season because he’s had to take on a lot of young guys,” said Payne, who also serves as the athletic director at Elgin Community College, on Monday.

Cole, more than athletic enough to get to the rim any time he wants, has worked on expanding his range this season, emphasizing jump shots and other looks off the dribble. He didn’t demonstrate that much Monday — pretty much all his makes were layups, and he missed his lone three-point attempt — but he hopes to have more tangible results by the time he arrives at NIU this summer.

And in the meantime, he’s also taken a personal investment in creating a lasting culture change at Streamwood, the program he carried through its plunge into ineptitude and out to the promised land on the other side.

“All the kids there, the freshmen and sophomores, they look up to me highly, they’re always asking me about basketball tips,” Cole said. “I see they want to be like me, I see they want to work hard. I’m just teaching them the ways and giving them advice: Just because things are rough at one point doesn’t mean it won’t get better.”

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