Revealing the high school basketball coach of the year candidates

The list includes some familiar names and past winners, along with some under-appreciated coaches who are receiving their due.

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Simeon coach Robert Smith watches as the Wolverines play Kenwood.

Simeon coach Robert Smith watches as the Wolverines play Kenwood.

Allen Cunningham/For the Sun-Times

The best teams are analyzed and the top players are talked about all season long. Along the way we at times forget about those leading them: the coaches.

We’ve nearly reached the conclusion of the regular season with the biggest games yet to come. But there are so many coaches who have already helped their teams exceed preseason predictions or reach the high expectations placed on them.

While state tournament runs put together by their teams do matter, there are a number of Coach of the Year candidates throughout the area. The list includes some familiar names and past winners, along with some under-appreciated coaches who are receiving their due.

Robert Smith, Simeon

There were a handful of teams with massive preseason expectations when the season began. Among those teams, however, there was one that lived up to the hype over three months of basketball better than any. But that’s what having a seasoned pro on the bench will do for you.

Retiring Simeon coach Robert Smith surpassed 500 career wins, spent most of the season ranked No. 1 and just recently capped off the regular season with a city championship. Yes, the naysayers will always point to the talent Smith has at Simeon. But there are teams, on paper, with more talent than Simeon, and Smith continues to always be able to navigate and right a ship just perfectly.

Gene Heidkamp, Benet

There is a reason Heidkamp is a two-time City/Suburban Hoops Report Coach of the Year winner. He’s simply one of the elite coaches in the state, and he’s right in the picture again this season.

This was a team that was ranked in the preseason and had visions of playing in Champaign. But for Benet to put together a 29-1 record? And beat the likes of Joliet West, Kenwood and others along the way? And do so with small college basketball prospects and an Ivy Leaguer?

Nick Latorre, Hinsdale Central

The veteran coach has had a solid decade-plus run at Hinsdale Central. This has been a program that won 23 games in back-to-back seasons in 2013-14 and 2014-15 with regional tiles. The Red Devils have nearly always been competitive under Latorre.

But this year’s team has tied the school record for most wins in a season, won a West Suburban Silver Conference championship and has earned a No. 2 sectional seed.

Latorre has led this senior-dominated group to the best season the program has had in 25 years. Hinsdale Central, now 28-3 on the season, hasn’t lost since mid-December and is riding a 20-game winning streak. The Red Devils began the season unranked and have climbed into the top 10.

This was all accomplished with one of the current top five senior prospects in the country, 6-9 Matas Buzelis, leaving the Hinsdale Central program following his sophomore year.

Don Houston, Hillcrest

The perennial south suburban power lost two Division I prospects in the offseason, both transferring out of the program. The lost talent and the timing of it would cripple most teams.

No problem.

The highly-successful and respected Houston didn’t miss a beat. The Hawks are 25-3, emerged as the best team in the south suburbs and are a legitimate state threat in Class 3A.

The Hawks are competing and playing as a cohesive group under Houston and are the top seed in their own Class 3A sectional.

Scott Fricke, New Trier

A year ago New Trier finished with a school record 30 wins and reached a sectional championship. The Trevians, however, graduated four of five starters, including all-area performer Jackson Munro.

With just Jake Fiegen returning, Fricke has guided the Trevians right back to where they were a year ago, only this season they’ve added a Central Suburban League South championship and a No. 1 sectional seed.

Even with all the player turnover and a new group taking on new and bigger roles, New Trier has remained a tough, defensive-minded team. The Trevians are 27-4 heading into this week’s Central Suburban League regular-season finale with Niles North.

Brian Hynes, Marist

The most unfamiliar coaching name on this short list is very much deserving of a whole lot of recognition. What a breakout season it’s been for Marist basketball and Hynes.

Hynes, a Marist graduate who was an assistant under former coach Gene Nolan from 2007-2018, has revitalized the program. In his second season as head coach, Hynes has taken a mix of seniors and promising young players and the blend has resulted in one of the biggest surprises of the season.

With several freshmen and sophomores playing key roles, Marist is 23-7, ranked in the top 20 and sits just behind Benet in second place in the East Suburban Catholic Conference.

The RedHawks, who nearly upset rival and highly-ranked Brother Rice, losing 49-48, earned a top four seed in the tough St. Rita Sectional.

Ryan Velasquez, Oswego East

It was never going to be easy following up last year’s remarkable season.

Oswego East ended 2021-22 with a 52-51 sectional final heartbreaker to Bolingbrook but not before the Wolves finished with a program-best 33-3 record. A rock solid senior group, which included four key players, departed.

But what a job Velasquez has done this season in keeping the Wolves relevant and among the top teams in the area.

Velasquez did welcome back a Division I talent in the versatile Mekhi Lowery. Ryan Johnson and Mason Blanco returned after averaging five and four points a game, respectively. But Velasquez, who is 131-31 in the past six seasons, worked a pair of transfers into the mix and kept the Wolves humming.

Oswego East is at the top of the Southwest Prairie Conference yet again. The Wolves have won 25 games and gone a perfect 16-0 in the league, including going on the road and handing Joliet West its only conference loss.

Oswego East has been a fixture in the top 25 all season and settled in as the No. 3 seed in the Bolingbrook Sectional.

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