This was a trying and turbulent season for high school basketball programs, players and coaches.
There were the on-and-off discussions for months as to whether there would even be a season. When it finally did tip in February it was an abbreviated one.
Along the way there were COVID-19 shutdowns, pauses, canceled games and plenty of teenaged-emotions to tend to and nurture. And, oh, throw in no state tournament to play for at the end of it all.
Coaches were in uncharted water, figuring out and putting out fires as they came. This season, more than ever, coaches were there to hold it together — at least as best they could. And there wasn’t anyone who did a better job of it than DePaul Prep’s Tom Kleinschmidt.
As a result, Kleinschmidt is the 2020-21 City/Suburban Hoops Report Coach of the Year.
In this unprecedented season, DePaul Prep did win the one high-profile event that was played, beating Evanston in the championship game of the Chipotle Clash of Champions to wrap up a 14-2 season.
The grinding but rewarding end-of-the-season run, which included a huge win over Brother Rice in Catholic League play and the Chipotle title, stands out. But it’s how DePaul was able to get to that point that impresses even more. The process wasn’t easy, starting with a program COVID-19 pause just after the season had started.
Star guard TY Johnson remembers the team’s Zoom meeting when his coach told them they were being forced to shut down. The Rams beat St. Joseph on Feb. 8 but didn’t play again until Feb. 19, beating St. Ignatius after having one full practice in the days leading up to that game.
But Johnson also remembers all that his coach did from a distance while practicing proper COVID-19 protocols. While Kleinschmidt was physically away from his team, he made an impact.
“He first made sure we all were staying on top of our school work and our grades,” said Johnson, who is headed to play at Loyola next season. “He always is making sure we are taking care of things off the court. Then he made sure we stayed in shape and were ready with specific workout plans he sent us. He was the one who kept us locked in and told us to believe and that nothing can break us.”
Kleinschmidt had already established himself as one of the premier coaches in the state before this season. He rebuilt the DePaul program, averaging 22 wins a year with six consecutive regional titles in the past six seasons. The highlight was a sectional title, followed by a trip to Peoria and a Class 3A third-place finish in 2019.
His teams are perennially tough and disciplined with a feisty defensive approach.
“When you play a Tom Kleinschmidt team you know what you’re going to get,” said Loyola Academy coach Tom Livatino, who has a long, friendly rivalry from their many Catholic League battles. “His players love playing for him. They’re connected, play great defense, are always well prepared, super tough and expect to win. He’s as good as it gets.”
But Kleinschmidt, like so many coaches this past season, was dealing with way more than scouting reports, player development and X’s and O’s.
First, the pandemic led to coaches doing their thing virtually through Zoom meetings. But even once the season started, coaches had to navigate it differently than ever before. These were young teens who have always been used to consistent, structured schedules through school and sports. That was all thrown off.
In addition, trying top maintain a sense of stability for players became paramount, especially adjusting to what amounted to a maze when trying to get through the season.
“The most difficult part of it was that every day you didn’t know if you were going to be able to practice or play a game, wondering if this was going to be your last practice or your last game,” said Kleinschmidt of the day-to-day uncertainty due to COVID-19 protocols.
While having very little control over the situation was challenging, Kleinschmidt said he and his staff tried to turn it into a positive. He wanted to make sure his players didn’t take anything for granted.
“We didn’t want to have this dark cloud over us,” he said. “So we went with that if this is our last practice or our last game, let’s make it our best. Let’s not forget this could be the last time you’re playing together with your best friends.”
And DePaul’s last few games of the season were the team’s very best.
In that final week the Rams won six games in six days, including Catholic League wins over Brother Rice and St. Rita, along with beating three highly-ranked teams in two days to win the Chipotle Clash of Champions. That remarkable run is as satisfying of an accomplishment as any team could have had in this odd, truncated season.
“That last week of the season … you couldn’t have scripted it any better,” said Kleinschmidt. “It was extremely satisfying.”
The Rams beat Catholic League leader Brother Rice in the final game ever played in the old Gordon Tech gymnasium, where Kleinschmidt’s retired number hangs on the wall from his all-state playing days
DePaul then took out previously unbeaten Young in the opening game of the Chipotle Clash of Champions, thanks to a sterling performance from Johnson. The 6-2 guard poured in 32 points in a convincing 55-43 win.
The Rams knocked off Fenwick and Bryce Hopkins in the semifinals after having lost to the Friars just one week earlier, and then beat up Evanston 51-36 in the championship game.
“I know it wasn’t the state finals but to beat Whitney Young, Fenwick and Evanston in 24 hours is a helluva run,” said Kleinschmidt of his team. “There wouldn’t have been any tougher road for us in Class 3A, and there probably wouldn’t have been a tougher road for those 4A teams.
“If you think about it, we could have played some non-conference game that didn’t matter to end the season on that Saturday. That would have been a terrible way to end a season, especially after all these kids have been through and all that they have put into the program.”
Yes, there was a star in place in Johnson. And a senior-dominated team featuring Johnson, Rasheed Bello, big man Brian Mathews, Jabari Sawyer and Cam Lewis was ready-made, poised to make a state run under normal circumstances. But the wise and sharp Johnson made a point not to underestimate the vision and belief his coach instilled.
“We were the underdog, but he put confidence in us in preparing for that tournament,” said Johnson. “His scouting reports are always incredible. He prepares us as a team and as players for the next level. And he’s intense and may yell a lot, but we know he loves us. He wants us to be better players and better young men.”
Kleinschmidt is quick to point out it’s the senior group, both their ability and mindset, that propelled the Rams to a final No. 1 ranking in the Chicago Sun-Times Super 25. He knew before the season he was fortunate as a coach to have this senior class, no matter what type of season played out.
“If we were able to play — and we know it looked cloudy for awhile there — but we knew if we played we were lucky to have this senior-laden team this year,” said Kleinschmidt. “They’ve been in big games, played downstate, had some experience on their side. We had the good fortune to have these kids. Our senior leaders kind of controlled the locker room and we benefitted from that.”
(As Editor/Publisher of the City/Suburban Hoops Report, a high school basketball publication for nearly two decades and a recruiting service, I have awarded a Coach of the Year in Illinois for the past 25 years. The following is the 26th recipient of the award.)
Past City/Suburban Hoops Report’s Coach of the Year
2021: Tom Kleinschmidt, DePaul Prep
2020: Tai Streets, Thornton
2019: Mike Oliver, Curie
2018: Mike Ellis, Evanston
2017: Mike Healy, Wheaton South
2016: Gene Heidkamp, Benet
2015: Phil Ralston, Geneva
2014: Tom Livatino, Loyola Academy
2013: Mike Taylor, Marian Catholic
2012: Robert Smith, Simeon
2011: Scott Miller, Glenbard East
2010: Gene Heidkamp, Benet
2009: Ron Ashlaw, Waukegan
2008: John Chappetto, Richards
2007: Pat Ambrose, Stevenson
2006: Gordie Kerkman, West Aurora
2005: David Weber, Glenbrook North
2004: Roy Condotti, Homewood-Flossmoor
2003: Bob Curran, Thornwood
2002: Rick Malnati, New Trier
2001: Conte Stamas, Lyons Twp.
2000: Dave Lohrke, Glenbard South
1999: Gene Pingatore, St. Joseph
1998: Mark Lindo, Naperville North
1997: Gordie Kerkman, West Aurora
1996: Rocky Hill, Thornton