By John Alfes
Lake View High School men’s basketball heads into the off-season with a sense of determination and cohesion after the trials and tribulations of the 2018-19 season.
“We felt that we had a lot of ups and downs, but we accomplished many things,” said Dominic Saez, a junior shooting guard at the varsity level. “Coming into this next season, we’re going to try to do it better than how we did it this year.”
Despite having a 6-2 record at home and 5-4 record in conference play, the Wildcats finished with a final clip of 11-17 this winter. Following his fourth season at the helm, head coach Mike Davis will now have to piece together a new roster for the 2019-20 campaign without the 10 seniors who spearheaded much of the 2018-19 team’s production and leadership.
“This was my first year of having more than four seniors on one team,” said Davis, who played for John A. Logan College in Carterville and the University of Illinois Springfield before playing in semi-professional basketball leagues and eventually starting a coaching career. “With all the leadership and vocal skills that they had, just being able to be some type of role model to anybody and to the program was really good for me, and I can’t be more proud than that.”
Seniors Tyrek Warren, David Thomas and Coby San Juan performed among the program’s premier talents, a trio that consistently scored double-digit points and paced a 1-2-1-1, full-court defensive press.
The group fueled many memorable moments, including a come-from-behind effort against Chicago Bulls College Prep on Jan. 8, Thomas’ game-winning basket against Chicago Academy High School on Feb. 13 and a 10-point win on senior night against Golder College Prep on Feb. 15.
Filling those voids and recreating those special moments from the senior-laden lineup will begin with Saez and junior point guard Zyon Evans.
“What [the seniors] taught us was to never give up, on and off the bench,” Saez said. “A quiet team is a losing team, and most of the time we’re not a quiet team. We know, if we motivate each other, we’re going to do great as a team.”
Scoring early and often is one of the strategies the rising seniors already have in mind.
“I feel like we have to come from the start, like out of the gate we have to play together as a team,” Evans said. “We can’t go losing throughout [the game], not playing together and then towards the end we want to start coming together. We gotta start from the beginning.”
The inception of next season will be in November 2019, but Saez and Evans figure to lead an off-season regiment this spring that will align the team with its long-term goals. Lake View High School has renovated its basketball court, installed a water-resistant pool, replenished its equipment and updated many of its facilities to make that advanced training come to fruition.
A junior varsity player such as Tyler Palmer recognizes the value in taking advantage of those resources.
“I think it’s very important,” said Palmer, a sophomore shooting guard who could rise to the varsity team next season. “Compared to the gym last year, it’s a big improvement. We have basketballs, too. We have a lot of good equipment now to use.”
Davis shares that sentiment, too, especially in equipping younger players with the means necessary to effectively play at the program’s highest level.
“With all the resources we have at the school, it’s going to be beneficial for all these guys,” Davis said. “Later on in the spring before school lets out, I think these guys are going to be really hungry to come in and definitely get better.”
Junior guard Zane Zielinski, a returning starter who has a chance to play a major role in 2019-20, will be one of the basketball players to also play baseball this spring. For those not involved in a spring sport, the Wildcats will have conditioning and lifting prior to the school’s summer break.
Even though it isn’t on the court, Lake View still looks at these opportunities as a way to grow and improve upon the peaks and valleys of this past campaign.
“I feel like this off-season we need to stay together, work as a team,” Evans said. “If we’re all coming together and going to conditioning every day, I feel like we’ll be great next year.”
In addition to Palmer, sophomore Jackson Bierwirth is also an up-and-coming player projected to make the sizable jump from JV to varsity. Unlike Saez, Evans and Palmer, though, Bierwirth is taller and brings an interior presence that bodes well for rebounding, protecting the rim and scoring.
That skillset alone might be enough to address one of the program’s biggest needs.
“That’s one of the things we lacked this season, is size,” Davis said. “I think down the road that’s going to be the biggest challenge.”
Lake View’s ultimate goal moving forward is to win the conference, also known as the Chicago Public – White North conference. Other teams include Payton College Prep, Schurz, Taft, Northside, Foreman, Mather, Von Steuben, Marine Leadership Academy and Alcott/DeVry Advantage Academy.
In accomplishing such a feat, the Wildcats will have to bounce back from the struggles they have encountered. The program had one-point losses to Schurz on Jan. 18 and Chicago Sullivan on Jan. 19, and a two-point defeat against Northridge on Jan. 26. Learning from those tightly contested affairs will be a focal point as players and coaches turn the page on 2018-19.
“From all the experience that they had from this year, whether it’s from the JV players or also our incoming seniors that will be here for next year, they’re going to definitely want to have a better season,” Davis said.
With junior varsity usually playing after the varsity team, players such as Bierwirth and Palmer could watch the older players before toeing the hardwood themselves this year. That observational period — plus the fact that the JV and varsity teams practice and play with each other — will also be beneficial to them.
“I think we should just stay consistent throughout the game and don’t let up so you don’t have to worry about being down one in the fourth quarter,” Bierwirth said.
From top to bottom, Davis is embracing the challenge of developing each and every one of his players, particularly those who are still growing into high school athletes.
“I’m just really excited to work with them this offseason, get them better,” Davis said. “Get them used to my system, and being able to have them contribute next season.”
Whether they are trailing by one point or leading by 20 points or celebrating 10 seniors or participating in three tournaments over three months — the cohesiveness of the Lake View High School Wildcats basketball program always seems to be intact.
That quality has given them pride in what they have done this past season, confidence in what they are doing this offseason and excitement in what they are going to do this upcoming season.
“If we keep putting in the work and keep showing up as a team doing everything together, our season’s going to be successful,” Saez said. “We have a lot of tough players that are going to show management for the team and be leaders.”