Joe Henricksen, editor/publisher of the City/Suburban Hoops Report, a high school basketball publication for two-plus decades and currently a recruiting service that goes out to college coaches across the country, has awarded a Team of the Year in Illinois for the past 24 years.
The Hoops Report Team of the Year is given annually to a team that has shown character, surprised or overachieved in some fashion while overcoming obstacles in putting together a terrific season. Joliet West is the 25th recipient of the award.
How high can the expectations be for a team coming off a five-win season? Five wins?
Throw in the fact the team was guided by a new coach in his first season and was throttled with a series of midseason injuries, and the 24-game win improvement by Joliet West is ultra-impressive.
“As a coach you can’t be more gratified or appreciative of all that these players did,” says coach Jeremy Kreiger of a group that fueled one of the best one-year turnarounds in state history.
Joliet West finished 29-4, won the Southwest Prairie East and was still alive and playing for a sectional championship when Covid-19 abruptly ended the season. For a proud basketball city like Joliet, which was hoping for its first trip to Peoria since Joliet Twp. reached the Class AA state quarterfinals in 1998, it was a bitter pill to swallow.
Kreiger, a Joliet native who was a 2004 Joliet Central graduate and three-year assistant at Joliet West, took over the program last spring. Accountability, expectations and doing the little things, both on and off the court, were preached. He wanted to have strong player-coach relationships while developing a trust with one another. Everything else, he told his players to believe, would take care of itself.
He was able to see some immediate returns. The Tigers fared very well in the Riverside-Brookfield Shootout and then advanced to the championship game of the Morris Shootout in June.
“I know summer basketball is looked at a certain way,” Kreiger admits. “But it’s what we saw as a staff that was important, particularly how we were coming together off the floor and how well we guarded.”
That led to a quick start to the season, sweeping four games in winning a Thanksgiving tournament title. By the first week of December the Tigers had already surpassed last year’s win total.
Kreiger noted how practices were different. They were competing each day. The gym was empty but was loud with energy. He saw the belief was growing among his players.
A sterling win at the Pontiac Holiday Tournament against Simeon and a victory over Benet in the third-place game, following a loss to No. 1 ranked Curie, only ramped up the excitement around the program and throughout the Joliet basketball world.
Even a barrage of injuries didn’t slow the Tigers down. The perseverance showed during a tough stretch that could have flattened many other teams. Kreiger was without four core players, including leading scorer and Toledo recruit Jamere Hill, in late January and early February.
They played Bolingbrook tough in defeat with several starters out and beat Hillcrest while shorthanded as the hobbled Tigers went 7-1 down the stretch.
“That spoke to our depth and still believing,” says Kreiger. “We also moved up some young players and it was like lightning in a bottle.”
Hill, one of the most improved players in the senior class, was averaging 17.7 points a game when the season ended. Juniors Jaiden Lee (13.4 ppg), Trent Howland (10.2 ppg) and Ashawn Burbridge (9.8 ppg) were valuable double-figure scorers. Freshman point guard Jeremy Fears, Jr., improved by the week, finishing the season averaging 6.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, five assists and two steals a game while leading the team with 30 charges taken.
There was talent, depth and a budding confidence as the Tigers were finally healthy while winning the regional and beating Neuqua Valley in the sectional semifinal.
Since the sad ending to an incomplete season, Kreiger has made a point to remind his players all that they did this past year truly did mean something, even with the incomplete feeling of a lost opportunity for so many.
“I’ve told them not to focus on what wasn’t accomplished or what we weren’t able to finish,” says Kreiger. “The focus should be on the foundation that was set and all that we did accomplish together. This is a group that should be proud in showing exactly what we want the program to look like.”
City/Suburban Hoops Report Teams of the Year
2020: Joliet West
2018: Marian Catholic
2017: Wheaton South
2016: Lincoln-Way West
2013: Morgan Park
2005: Brother Rice
2004: Hoffman Estates
2003: Downers Grove South
2002: Highland Park
2000: Brother Rice
1997: Niles Notre Dame
1996: New Trier