By Julia Cardi
After a signal from coach Mike Ellis, Jaheim Holden hopped from the bench with a grin, shed his warmup T-shirt, and knelt on the sideline, poised to run onto the court. His teammates Lance Jones and Ryan Bost joined him, and for four minutes and 21 seconds of play, the three freshmen dominated the court.
Fueled by a pass from Bost, Holden drove easily past the overwhelmed St. Ignatius defenders for a layup. The Wildkits on the bench exploded with cheers for the 5-foot-7 guard and began chanting gleefully.
“He’s-a-fresh-man, he’s-a-fresh-man,” they howled.
While Holden, Jones and Bost get extensive playing time on Evanston’s undefeated sophomore team, they practice with the varsity players and sit on the bench at every game. But the 68-32 win over St. Ignatius was effectively the first time all season the Wildkits’ three freshmen had left the bench for the varsity.
“We got minutes against Loyola,” Bost said.
“Yeah, 30 seconds,” Holden snickered, and all three boys dissolved into giggles. But impatience and a yearning to play simmers just below the carefree surface. They don’t like sitting on the bench.
“It’s something I’m not used to,” Bost said. “I’m used to playing.”
Holden, Jones and Bost all play on AAU teams, where they’ve competed against highly talented players their own age. “We’ve been on bigger circuits than this,” Holden explained, “against some of the top players in the country…If we can compete with them, we can compete with anybody.”
“Anybody,” Jones and Bost echoed.
Ellis said he understands the freshmen’s struggle to adjust to less playing time than they’re used to. “They’re coming in having been the best of the best,” he explained. “All of those guys were the best player on their teams; all of them received MVP awards at AAU tournaments.
“Now they’re coming into a practice and environment where they’re no longer ‘the man,’ so now they kind of have to re-learn the game and understand what things they’re going to need to bring to the table to be successful.”
Despite their impatience, Holden, Bost and Jones said they know they benefit from practicing with the other boys on varsity.
“It’s a good experience,” Bost said.
“I like the competition that we go through every day,” Jones added. “It gets us better.”
Ellis said he believes the freshmen gain the most from participating in the varsity practices and playing in the sophomore games. “We want all the players to be at a level where they’re going to play the most minutes and have the largest impact,” he said. “For [the freshmen], obviously them playing almost the entire game at the sophomore level is an advantage for their growth, compared to just playing minimal minutes at the varsity level.
“And then having them set up with the opportunity to practice against the varsity guys every day is only going to benefit their growth and development down the line. We’ve had 71 practices so far, so for them to play against [the older players] 71 times versus playing 20 scheduled games, it’s definitely going to impact [them] in a positive way.”
But practicing at such a competitive level comes with a risk of overwhelming the freshmen.
“They just take you out if you mess up [a play],” Bost said.
“It’s embarrassing,” Jones added.
Still, Ellis said he has high hopes for the future of his varsity team with Jones, Holden and Bost. “It’s just going to come down to their drive to succeed and work hard, and their love for the game,” Ellis said.
The three freshmen hunger to hold their own and insist they can. “I know I can compete with them,” Holden said.
Back in practice, the Wildkits begin running a passing drill. Holden’s turn comes, and with the speed of a rabbit, he bounds down the court to keep up with his teammates. He completes the layup and darts back to the opposite end of the court to get back in line, ready again to run. Ready again to compete.