Neuqua Valley’s John Poulakidas Chooses Yale over Power 5

John Poulakidas commits to Yale

COVID-19 and its fallout put much of the traditional recruiting cycle on hold for John Poulakidas, as it did for so many athletes in the class of 2021. Still, the Neuqua Valley shooting guard had enough early interest to have his choice of more than 15 Division I schools — despite losing out on most of his final AAU season and the chance to meet many coaching staffs in person.

Poulakidas, a 6-6 sharpshooter who averaged 17.5 points and knocked down 76 triples as a junior, had the option to stay close to home: Loyola-Chicago, Illinois-Chicago, Bradley, Southern Illinois, UW-Milwaukee and Saint Louis all offered.

He also had a number of Power 5 options: Minnesota, Wake Forest, Rutgers and TCU.

But in the end, Poulakidas chose the program that he believed cared about him the most, and the one that would best set him up for the rest of his life: Yale.

“The biggest factor for me was choosing a program and a staff that loved me just as much as I loved them,” Poulakidas said in a phone interview ahead of his official announcement. “One thing that I’ve learned in this whole process is that going somewhere where you’re loved is extremely important. That allows you to put yourself in the best position to become the best person you can be, and the best player as well. When you surround yourself with people who truly care about you and your well-being, that allows a lot of individual growth. Seeing how invested and how much time they put into me really stood out to me.”

It didn’t hurt that Yale has won two straight Ivy League championships, with the 2019-20 campaign for a three-peat cut short by COVID-19.

“And obviously in the classroom it doesn’t get much better than an Ivy League education,” he added. “When you add that in with the fact that they were invested in me … I really feel like this puts me in the best position on and off the court.

Basketball has always been in Poulakidas’ life: His dad played a season at North Central College, and an uncle played at Briar Cliff University in Iowa. He was surrounded by the sport well before he grew into the body of a modern Division I wing.

“Ever since I was born my dad put those fuzzy basketballs in my hand,” Poulakidas said. “It wasn’t until probably two-years-old when I started shooting on those mini Tikes hoops. Basketball’s really always been in my life.”

Though he’s always been around the sport, playing high-level college hoops wasn’t on his radar until after playing varsity as a freshman for the Wildcats, moving to the starting lineup in the middle of the year.

That team went just 9-20. His sophomore year Neuqua Valley improved to 13-17. This past season the Wildcats went 23-9, their most wins since the 2014-15 season.

The program’s improvement the past three years has coincided with Poulakidas’ development as a player. Known first for his three-point range, he’s made a conscious effort to become a better play-maker, as well as a guy who can score at all three levels.

“What I really did was took more of a focus on becoming a ball-handler and having the ball in my hand,” Poulakidas said. “After freshman year that was really a big focus of mine. I knew that if I could add a play-making ability — to go along with my IQ, and my size and my ability to shoot — I could become that much more valuable as a player.”

Nothing captures that offensive versatility like his performance against Bolingbrook in January, when he set the school record for points in a game — 49 — while leading his team to a 92-89 upset win.

“Honestly, when the game started I missed my first three shots,” Poulakidas said. “But as the game went on … I saw that my shot was falling and I just wanted to keep being aggressive. I know that there are games where my shot isn’t necessarily falling and I’ve got my teammates to lift me up. And that was the game where I was hitting my shots and my teammates were continuously looking to me, and we were able to get the job done in the end.

The combination of Poulakidas’ skill set and physical gifts made him attractive to many college programs. The Yale coaching staff made it easy for Poulakidas to picture himself excelling in the program.

“[Assistant] coach [Matt] Kingsley was always sending me screenshots and pictures of everything where they feel I would fit in their program,” Poulakidas said. “Coach Kingsley and I, we did a lot of Zoom calls where he would take me through plays within their offense that he felt I would fit best in. Or taking me through their practices, which they were recording, to show me what they looked like. He would even break up film from college and NBA guys that he felt … that I play similar to.

“Something that they did different was they almost specialized it to where they were really focusing on me and the parts of my game where they felt I would be able to prosper in their program. … I felt like A) I learned a lot, and B) it showed me how much I meant to them as a player.”

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Bolingbrook’s De’ahna Richardson Commits to WMU: “It Just Felt Like Home”

Bolingbrook girls head coach Chris Smith has had no shortage of talent since taking over the program in 2013. He can point to alumni currently on rosters at Central Michigan, Marquette, Northern Illinois and other colleges.

But with De’ahna Richardson he’s had some firsts. She was the first player to start her freshman season on varsity. In her junior season she became the first non-senior captain he’s had.

The groundbreaking Richardson, now a senior, became Smith’s latest player to join a Division 1 college program when she verbally committed to Western Michigan earlier this week. Smith said it wasn’t long after he met Richardson, while he coached her in middle school AAU, that he could see her potential to play at the next level.

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Illinois Girls Basketball Programs Begin Contact Days

With contact days underway for IHSA programs as of Monday, Sept. 7 (running through Oct. 24), coaches and players alike are relishing the chance to get back into the gym and with teammates. 

While many teams have begun practicing, some programs are choosing to push back the usage of their 20 days. And Chicago Public School programs can’t hold any practices after CPS ruled against contact days.  

Three girls basketball coaches from around the state chatted shared how their contact days are going and looked ahead to a season of uncertainty. 

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Lindblom’s Natasha Barnes Prepared for Leadership Role as Sophomore

Whatever issues on the floor there may have been a year ago, the Lindblom Eagles’ Natasha Barnes expects to be the problem-solver this time around.

For Lindblom to break through in the Chicago Public League Red-South/Central, Barnes must fill that role in her sophomore season following a strong summer of ball with Example Sports AAU. An aspiring engineer who lists her GPA as a 4.4 on her Twitter, Barnes wants to become the type of person who fixes what’s not working.

“Learning new things, being able to mess up and being able to try again, you have to persevere, figure out what’s the problem and work,” Barnes said. 

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CPS Coaches Organize Anti-Violence Rally on Saturday, September 19

Tim Flowers was seven years old when he first saw someone killed in his neighborhood.

Flowers, now 32, had a long-time friend shot and killed in just the past few weeks on Chicago’s South Side. Gun violence and its effects on his community — Englewood, where he grew up and now lives again — have been a near constant in his life. That violence and a desire to show young people “we shouldn’t be living like this” is a driving force in Flowers’ motivation for organizing the Soaring Above All Odds rally on Saturday, September 19, at Murray Park in Englewood.

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Q&A With Homewood-Flossmoor Forward and LSU Commit Grace Hall

Grace Hall LSU commit from Homewood-Flossmoor

Homewood-Flossmoor 2021 forward Grace Hall is one of the top girls basketball players in the area, named one of just two Illinois players in the 2021 ESPN top 100 (Naperville North’s Greta Kampschroeder at No. 32 and Hall No. 86). She averaged nearly 18 points and over 9 rebounds per game as a sophomore, but had junior season cut short by an ACL injury to her right knee.

Hall announced her verbal commitment to LSU at the end of August, choosing the Tigers over Illinois, Indiana, Rutgers and others. She joins 2021 Whitney Young point guard Timia Ware in LSU’s recruiting class.

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St. Rita Underclassmen Loaded with Talent: “I’m Going to Push Them”


If they didn’t know already, anyone who follows Chicago-area basketball Twitter found out on Wednesday, September 2, how much young talent the St. Rita boys basketball team has.

Over the span of a few hours, four of the Mustangs’ 2024 class — players who have yet to play a game in a high school uniform — and one 2023 player all received college offers:

  • Northern Illinois and Siena offered 2024 forward Morez Johnson, Jr.
  • Northern Illinois offered 2024 center James Brown
  • Northern Illinois offered 2024 wing Joshua Pickett
  • Northern Illinois offered 2024 point guard Jaedin Reyna
  • Siena offered 2023 combo guard Kaiden Space

It was the first offer for four of the five, with Brown already holding offers from Siena, Western Illinois and Howard.

The infusion of young talent aligns with Roshawn Russell, who enters his second season as St. Rita’s head coach, taking over the program. Finishing with a 21-11 record overall in year one gave faith to prospective players about the direction of the program, Russell believes.

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Brianna Wooldridge Transfers From LWW Back to Fremd

One of the state’s top 2022 bigs is on the move again.

Brianna Wooldridge, who played at Lincoln-Way West as a sophomore, has transferred to Fremd — the school where she played as a freshman.

@Southsuburbanhoops broke the news on Twitter on Wednesday, September 2. Tony Baranek at the Daily Southtown reports that Wooldridge’s Lincoln-Way West teammates knew of the move earlier.

Wooldridge said in a message that the move back to Fremd was prompted by family reasons. She said that leaving Lincoln-Way West is bittersweet.

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UMass Gets “Blue Collar” Center in DePaul College Prep’s Brian Mathews

UMass commit Brian Mathews from DePaul College Prep

Six years ago, Brian Mathews didn’t even play basketball: He was a soccer goalkeeper. Fast-forward to late August and Mathews committed to play Division 1 basketball at UMass.

How exactly did he go from hoops newbie to college player so quickly?

Like many other athletes thrust into basketball at that age, Mathews, a Chicago resident, was blessed with height that naturally attracts them to the game (or often brings people in the game to them). Mathews was 6-5 when he entered high school and had a size 15 shoe in seventh grade. Still, he was an expectedly raw prospect.

“He was big and long — imagine a puppy dog,” Tom Kleinschmidt, Mathews’ high school head coach at DePaul College Prep, said in a phone interview. “He was all over the place. His body was so big, he couldn’t control it at 12 years old [when I first met him].”

Still, being tall doesn’t guarantee that someone plays in college. Mathews had something many other young bigs lack.

“What stuck out to me was how hard he played,” Kleinschmidt said. “To get a kid that size to play that hard that early, it’s a great piece of clay [to mold].”

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