By Alyssa Muir
Kolby Gilles entered his first St. Ignatius Wolfpack practice the summer before his freshman year with plenty of excitement. A couple of hours later, he left “confused out of (his) mind.”
“I realized pretty quickly that high school basketball was going to be a big step up,” Gilles said.
Fast forward 3 ½ years and Gilles has more than caught up to the high school game. The Air Force Academy successfully recruited the four-year varsity player. He’s a key cog for a Wolfpack team that is currently No. 23 in the Chicago Sun-Times rankings and sixth in the Chicago Catholic Blue League, averaging 9.2 points and a team-high 5.4 rebounds.
Gilles grew up in Naperville before his family moved to the city and said he chose to attend St. Ignatius largely to “follow in (the) footsteps” of his sister who graduated from the school in 2018. Additionally, he saw the school as the best way to grow both academically and on the basketball court. He said he had fallen completely in love with the game early in middle school when “a couple hard hits” in football gave him the push he needed to choose between the two sports.
And over his four years, he has made a name for himself across the Chicago hoops landscape thanks to plays such as a vicious putback dunk in a pivotal moment of the Wolfpack’s sectional semifinal in 2020 and a game-winning layup to upset Curie High School last season.
But ask anyone in the Wolfpack program, and they will quickly tell you that Gilles’ impact goes far beyond his numbers.
“Kolby’s like our motor,” says AJ Redd, a Wolfpack guard and longtime friend of Gilles. “I call him the man in the middle. He gets us going, and he’s our vocal leader. Without him, we aren’t able to do the things we are able to do.”
He delivers impassioned pregame speeches to the team, pushes teammates when they need to be pushed and just brings positive energy. Gilles is the guy to do it all, said head coach Matt Monroe.
“He does a great job setting the tone and the rest of the team kind of follows his lead,” Monroe said.
Gilles’ leadership proved even more important during the beginning of the season as tough scheduling and a couple of one-possession losses resulted in a 3-4 record through the first seven games—a tough spot for a squad with very high preseason expectations.
But Gilles’ faith never wavered.
“I tried to set the example of not giving up on our team and what we have here,” Gilles said. “I just understood that in order for us to come together, I had to stay with it. It has to start somewhere. Yes, the coaches can say it, but it just means so much more coming from a player.”
Gilles and the Wolfpack kept at it, and it paid off in a big way a couple of weeks ago as they racked up four consecutive wins over top teams in the area, including Mount Carmel.
“Kolby was a big part of (those wins),” Monroe said. “He took on a lot of really tough defensive assignments in the post. And, of course, his leadership. When you have the leaders on your team and the coaches sharing the same message and walking alongside of each other, that makes growth on the team much easier.”
Gilles says it took him a little while to grow into his leadership role. Monroe insists the intangibles were always there.
“The spirit he has, the positivity he brings, the natural leadership he exudes, all really stood out to me from the day he entered our program,” Monroe said.
It’s those same types of qualities that Monroe sees in the Air Force Academy, where Gilles will be heading after graduation.
“Kolby’s the type of kid that can fit in anywhere, but I think Air Force’s values of hard work, discipline, selflessness and being a man for others are all who Kolby already is,” Monroe said.
Air Force didn’t get into his recruitment mix until the past summer, but Gilles was immediately taken with how much effort the school put into recruiting him and how they made him feel wanted. Still, he was a little unsure.
“I never thought I’d be going the military route, but that all switched for me when I went on the visit” to the Air Force academy in Colorado,” Gilles said. “I knew I was either going to love it or hate it, and I ended up really loving it.”
Gilles cites the structure, academic prestige and opportunity to form lifelong relationships across all the military academies as the top draws to the school apart from basketball.
And while he said he is excited to officially enroll in Air Force and “just do a lot of winning,” his current focus is completely on St. Ignatius and making a deep run in the upcoming postseason.
“My role has always been to do whatever I need to do to help the team win, so that’s what I’m going to keep doing and let’s keep winning.”
Alyssa Muir is a sports reporter at Medill from Tampa, Florida. You can follow Alyssa on Twitter at @alyssa_muir21.