Seven of the area’s most improved high school basketball teams

These teams are set to put a disappointing 2021-22 season in the rearview mirror. They’ve made significant improvements and will be much more competitive this winter.

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De La Salle’s Evan Jackson (11) reacts after scoring against Mount Carmel.

De La Salle’s Evan Jackson (11) reacts after scoring against Mount Carmel.

Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

Every year the top 25 teams are highlighted and we dig deep to find sleepers. But also of intrigue are those teams that struggled at or below the .500 mark a year ago but should be vastly improved this season.

Alright, these teams may not be poised to make deep runs when state tournament play opens, and they all may not be conference champions. But these seven teams are set to put a disappointing 2021-22 season in the rearview mirror. They’ve made significant improvements and will be much more competitive this winter.

Here are seven of what should be the most improved teams in high school basketball.

Antioch

Last year’s record: 12-18

Coach Sean Connor begins his second season leading a program that hasn’t won 20 games in 41 years. The recent history includes scratching and clawing last year just to get to 12 wins and learning how to win on the road; the Sequoits didn’t win a true road game last year until February.

Reason for optimism: This is a senior-dominated group led by a senior point guard. Emmy Zamudio makes this team go. He did a little of everything last year, including shooting 42 percent from the three-point line, and returns.

But there is a player in 6-3 sophomore Marshall Gehrke who can be a difference-maker. He led Antioch in scoring last year as a freshman with 13 points a game.

Nathan Young is a vastly improved 6-3 senior wing while 6-4 Joe Neumann, a South Dakota State football recruit, brings some physicality.

While Grayslake Central will be the favorite in the Northern Lake County Conference, Antioch can certainly be a sleeper.

De La Salle

Last year’s record: 13-22

The Meteors actually began last season 2-0. But then a six-game losing streak followed and they weren’t heard from again. A competitive schedule and injuries hampered the progression of this team last season.

Reason for optimism: A lot is still to be determined with the arrival of transfers who will have to be cleared to play. Richard Lindsey is a talented 6-4 junior who moved in from Simeon.

What we do know is Evan Jackson had a productive summer and is back after averaging seven points a game. He provides size, length and athleticism as a veteran 6-7 senior.

Junior guard Bryant Hedrick came on strong in the final third of the season and junior point guard Michael Davis is back after missing the last 12 games last season.

And Gary DeCesare absolutely loves his freshman class, who he says is “the best freshmann class in the state.”

DeCesare’s team is young and probably a year away from competing at a very high level, but it’s going to be one of the more improved teams.

Lincoln Park

Last year’s record: 15-14

Yes, Lincoln Park snuck its way above the .500 mark a year ago overall. But that was also after beginning the season with a red-hot 7-0 start. The schedule ramped up and the Lions struggled in the Red-West/North, finishing seventh with a 2-7 record.

Reason for optimism: The lack of continuity in the program has hurt. But coach Antwon Jennings begins his second season leading the Lions and is sky-high about his team, a blend of seniors and a group of young, promising players.

Senior Myan Whitfield is an open-court weapon in the backcourt, 6-2 senior Jalen Calloway is a diverse scoring threat and 6-8 junior Justus Berry is a versatile big.

But keep an eye on the sophomore class, which includes speedy underrated guard Vincent Kelly and 6-9 Keyshawn Barfield, who continues to progress as a developing big man.

Lincoln-Way East

Last year’s record: 11-17

After a couple of down seasons, particularly in the Southwest Suburban Blue, Lincoln-Way East is set to more closely resemble the 2017-18 23-win regional championship team.

Reason for optimism: Despite the rough season a year ago, there are some within the league that expect the Griffins to battle the favorite, Bolingbrook, for the top spot. There are reasons to believe.

There is depth, balance, plenty of senior experience and an influx of younger talent that coach Rich Kolimas will look to blend and mesh together. If it does, Lincoln-Way East is more than capable of flipping that 11-17 record around.

There isn’t a headliner in the group, but the senior contingent of point guard Kaiden Ross, who will make this team hum, 6-2 guard Ty Tolliver, athletic 6-6 wing Kyle Olagbegi and big, strong, versatile 6-6 George Bellevue will anchor this team.

There is also some added size with intriguing 6-8 junior Mac Hagemaster and a host of others who will figure into the rotation.

Metea Valley

Last year’s record: 10-20

Not only did Metea drop 20 games on the season, but the Mustangs also finished last in the DuPage Valley with a 2-8 mark. The 2021-22 season was a grind; Metea won five games in November and December and five more in January and February.

Reason for optimism: The record may not have shown it a year ago but Metea did show improvement. A 15-point loss to Neuqua Valley in mid-December turned into a 60-59 win in February. After being drilled by Waubonsie Valley, 59-35, in December, Metea lost by just four points in late January.

There were other examples like this over the course of the season. Plus, there is only one way to go in a league that isn’t exactly brimming with world-beaters. It’s not too far-fetched to say Metea could contend in the DVC.

There is an all-conference guard back in senior Jahki Gray (13 ppg). Nick Schroeder is a 6-4 junior sharpshooter who gained some valuable experience last season. Quentin Schaffer adds athleticism, 6-4 Jackson Corbett provides some glue, and 6-7 sophomore Jake Nosek is full of high-level potential.

Romeoville

Last year’s record: 13-16

The record last season was a little deceiving considering the schedule the Spartans played. With non-conference matchups with sectional champ Lemont, identical 23-win conference champs Bradley-Bourbonnais and Riverside-Brookfield, 24-win Brother Rice, Missouri power St. Louis Vashon and rival Bolingbrook, inching anywhere above .500 was probably wishful thinking.

Reason for optimism: Coach Marc Howard has one of the better backcourts in the Chicago area with the return of Loyola-Maryland recruit Trey Cicero and unheralded but uber-talented junior guard Meyoh Swansey. Those two combined to average 30 points a game last season.

There is a lot of experience –– four starters are back when you include 6-4 Devonte Cunningham and 6-5 Aaron Brown –– for a team that could push past 20 wins this year if everything falls into place.

Yorkville

Last year’s record: 9-21

There is no other way to put it: 2021-22 was a rough one. And that was after starting the season 3-1. The paltry overall win total was compounded by the fact the Foxes finished 2-14 in the Southwest Prairie West.

Reason for optimism: In seven of Yorkville’s final eight losses last season, the Foxes lost by single digits. So there was a competitive spirit still alive even after months of struggles.

Coach John Holakovsky has emerging 6-8 junior Jason Jakstys who has caught the eye of Division I basketball programs. He’s among the top 20 prospects in the Class of 2024 and averaged 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds a game. Jakstys is still a bit raw but is only getting better.

More importantly, there is some ammunition on the way, via Yorkville Christian transfers, including talented junior guard Dayvion Johnson. He played in 29 games and averaged three points a game for a Class 1A state championship team.

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