On Friday, Dec. 10, the Sandburg boys basketball team was scheduled to play sibling school Stagg. It’s a rivalry that Sandburg head coach John Daniels has experienced many times.
But this was the first time he would experience it from the Sandburg sidelines.
Daniels was Stagg’s head coach from 2003 to 2017, leaving for family reasons at the conclusion of the 2016-17 season. After some time away from the sport, he returned to the sidelines at Addison Trail and Aurora University to grow his basketball knowledge.
At the conclusion of the spring 2021 season, Sandburg coach Todd Allen decided to step away after 25 seasons to spend more time with his family. Daniels saw this as a perfect opportunity to do what he does best: take a program with pieces, give it new direction and bring it to new heights.
“I’m one of those guys that likes to buy the old house that’s all broken down but has good bones and I’m going to fix it up,” Daniels said.
This is not new territory for someone who has 28 years of coaching experience. All three of his previous head coaching stops have been similar.
“I’m looking forward to everything: getting to know the team, coaching my first game, and hopefully make a difference.”
Daniels took his first head coaching job in 1996 with Elmwood Park. In his three seasons there, the program had its first winning season in nearly 20 years.
At his next stop, York, the team improved each year and won a regional title in 2001. At Stagg, Daniels won four games in his first season. The Chargers became regular competitors at the top of the Southwest Suburban conference. Stagg enjoyed several 20-win seasons and won its first regional title in nearly 20 years.
The challenge brings both excitement and new battles. While Daniels has spoken about his excitement for his new journey, he understands it will not be a cake walk. Stepping in and seeing immediate change is not realistic, and there is so much learning that takes place when a new head coach comes in – from all sides.
Daniels shared how the coaching community is open and coaches learn from each other, highlighting similarities across programs. Still, no two situations are the same. This results in a learning curve when a new head coach steps in. Daniels said with all of the change, coaches and players alike will spend a lot of energy adapting in year one.
“The first season is always the hardest,” he said.
Despite the work it will take, Daniels stressed how excited he was to grow the culture of the program and lead a team once again.
“I’m blessed,” he said. “I get the chance to do this all over again and I’m excited. I’m looking forward to everything: getting to know the team, coaching my first game, and hopefully make a difference.”
Daniels and the Eagles were hoping to bounce back from back-to-back losses and a 1-5 start to the season against Stagg. But his first matchup against his former program was postponed.
It will be a must-watch event when he does return to face his old team.
Sean Connor is a man of different sides. He’s a father and husband. A math teacher. A sophomore basketball and ultimate frisbee coach. The man who runs fall basketball league.
It’s no surprise that Antioch’s new head varsity boys basketball coach knows what it takes to juggle tasks. He’s worn many hats coaching, scouting and organizing in the world of high school hoops. Still, Connor — who spent seven years at Chicago’s DePaul College prep teaching and coaching — bided his time before taking a head coaching job.
“I think I always knew I had a lot to learn,” Connor, now a Grayslake resident, said. “You look at all the different experiences I’ve had, and the more head coaches I was under the more I realized, ‘Like man, you’ve really got to make sure you understand this facet or this facet.’”
“It’s easy to say you want to be a varsity coach, but you’ve got to realize when you take on that duty, there’s more to it than just running the varsity team,” he continued.
Connor was hired Thursday, June 18, by Antioch. He was immediately thrust into the role: That same day at the Carmel Catholic Summer League he got to see his new Sequoit players in action.
Connor’s most recent coaching experience was at DePaul College Prep as the head sophomore coach, winning two Catholic League titles in six seasons. Before that he was with the sophomores at York and Geneva, and he has other experience building up youth feeder programs at programs like Marmion.
At DePaul, and when it was previously known as Gordon Tech, Connor was an assistant coach for a program in a school without much recent historical success before Tom Kleinschmidt’s arrival.
“It was hard to rebuild the program and try to help coach Kleinschmidt achieve the vision he had and what we wanted to be,” Connor said. “That was a long process. Obviously it’s very fulfilling to see everything come to a head this past year after going downstate and having the opportunity to see the guys compete in the Chipotle Classic. But I know some people didn’t understand the amount of work that really went in over the last 8-to-10 years in rebuilding that thing, and how many times people said no and, ‘DePaul’s not good enough.’
“It’s just been a really cool experience to be part of that rebuild and have all these visions and goals the school set and a lot of them come to fulfillment,” he added.
That type of experience informed the type of attributes he wants his program at Antioch to showcase. That doesn’t mean he will remove any agency from his Sequoits players.
Connor wants his players to take ownership of what’s to come in the process of program-building. He wants this especially for the upcoming seniors — a group who have seen three varsity coaches during their tenure after Tim Bowen’s departure after two seasons.
“I’ve always been very student-centered,” Connor said. “One of the things we’re going to do this week, and I’ve given the guys homework, is to think about what do you want Antioch basketball to be known for. Because I don’t think it’s appropriate that I come in and tell them what they should be in a community that I don’t have very strong roots in.”
A Woodstock graduate who still has family there, a more recent move to Grayslake put Connor’s family in a good position to look for new head coaching jobs. Growing up in Woodstock, Connor says he relates to what kids from Antioch experience growing up. He doesn’t doubt that will greatly influence the team they become. With an already organized feeder program — a selling point for Connor, who is already familiar with the region north of Chicago — he anticipates fitting in with the community’s existing identity.
“(Antioch) and Woodstock are both blue collar, out on the rim of the country versus suburban area, and I really relate to a lot of the kids in the community,” Connor said. “Because I grew up in a similar situation where you have just enough and have you have to work hard to get by.”
The newly anointed head coach was looking forward to taking his team to compete at Rockford and getting to know his new players. Kobe Kriese, a threat to fill the hoop up a season ago, is now gone.
Antioch has some seniors leaders and a large group of returning juniors. It also has talented underclassmen in sophomores like Coby Priller and Carter Webb back and the anticipated arrival of freshman Marshall Gehrke. Many moving pieces create a cloudy but enticing picture for the team’s future.
“The seniors have been fantastic in terms of leadership, being where they need to be and starting to give input as to where they want to be,” Connor said.
“There’s a very cool blend of experience: a lot of guys with varsity experience and then some young talent,” he continued. “We’ve got four players over 6-5, so it’ll be really cool to watch these guys grow over the summer and then really interesting to see what it looks like in November.”
While Antioch has had some recent success — the Sequoits won three consecutive regional titles between 2016 and 2018 despite three losing records — Connor things they can elevate past the traditional powers north of Chicago.
“I think they can disrupt the status quo in Illinois basketball because nobody is always looking at Antioch as the team to come out of the north suburbs,” Connor said. “Since you know it’s North Chicago, Waukegan, Zion-Benton, Round Lake and some of these other programs have been really strong. It’ll be really cool to track us over these next few years.
The Hersey Huskies were dominant from the start of Saturday’s 55-15 win over hosts Wheeling, racing out to a 31-0, second-quarter lead. But the score was far from the most interesting thing going on between two teams playing in their first game of the season.
Longtime Huskies coach Mary Fendley stood masked up, across from counterpart and first-year Wheeling head coach Beth Christell.
Their relationship? Former teacher and pupil.
Fendley, who coached Christell for the Huskies in 2000-2003, got the best of her former player Saturday, but she is excited for more of what’s to come in future Mid-Suburban League competition against her colleague and one-time standout guard. The Daily Herald covered Christell’s hiring as head coach.
Illinois-Basketball.com caught up with both Christell and Fendley after the game and asked about their teams, their relationship with one another and their expectations for the future.
Q: First of all, just how nice is it to be out on the court again playing in live-game action considering the circumstances in the world?
A (Fendley): I am absolutely thrilled to be coaching. A few short weeks ago it did not seem like this would happen. I told my girls that I even appreciate having to drive the bus while listening to tone deaf singers. (Seriously, they are amazing athletes. Singing – not so much.)
Q: How satisfied were you with the hot start and what’s the overall attitude of this team heading into a hectic few weeks of games?
A: I am blessed to have an amazingly talented group of athletes. The last few days at practice, things have started to click. I think we have a lot of offensive firepower, and am hopeful that a few of the girls will be ‘on’ at any given time. I think we all appreciate the opportunity we have to play the game we love. And, we just want to make the most of it.
Q: What years did you coach Beth Christell, and what type of player was she then? Knowing she’s been part of Wheeling’s program a few years, did you notice any changes to the way they play this year compared to years past when she was an assistant?
A: Beth was a strong guard whose atheticism made her super versatile. She could hit threes but could slash through the paint when overplayed.
The past few years I have been so impressed with how she has coached her JV team. She has shown a great combination of patience on the sideline with her girls while also motivating them to perform their best. Honestly, I was able to notice her more when I wasn’t coaching against her!
Q: What do you think folks who follow Wheeling basketball can expect from her leading that program, and how much are you looking forward to coaching against her in the future?
Beth is a competitor. So, Wheeling fans can know that she will continue to work hard to keep the program improving.
Q: How was it coaching against her tonight overall and did it produce any unique thoughts or feelings?
I appreciate being able to be in a league with Beth and so many other coaches who are passionate about what we do. She is a great representative of Wheeling, District 214, and the MSL. I probably sound cheesy, but I’m proud of Beth. She has done everything the right way to get to this point as a varsity coach. I have no doubt that she will do great things.
Q: How nice is it to be out on the court again playing in live-game action considering the circumstances in the world?
A: With the uncertainty of most athletics this year, it’s been a really tough year for the girls. For their physical and mental well-being, they’ve needed some normalcy, and I’m so grateful we’re able to do whatever it takes to have a season this year.
Q: What’s the overall attitude of your team heading into a hectic few weeks of games and how much are you all focused on growth in a short season?
We can definitely feel the rush of the season; however, as a coaching staff of a group with no seniors, our push has continuously been progress. We are using this year to grow our understanding of the game and improve our team goals and priorities. Knowing that I have all of these girls back next season is a great feeling for our program.
Q: What years did you play for Mary, and what do you remember most vividly about her coaching style and playing for her? I read your father was a coach at Hersey a long time, how deep does that connection run deep to Hersey athletics?
A: I played for Fen and Barthel from 2000-2003 and remember that they always had a great balance of high expectations and fun. We did so many fun team activities to help build relationships with each other, but also was expected to compete during practice. Hersey High School was such an important part of my life. My father and mother both coached and taught at the school (dad, basketball and business teacher, mom, cheerleading, swimming and deaf and hard of hearing teacher for 32 years at Hersey). So many of the reasons I teach high school math and coach at the high school level are because of my interactions with the amazing teachers and coaches at Hersey. I will always be grateful for what Hersey has given to me and how it has helped make me who I am today.
Q: Knowing you’ve been part of Wheeling’s program a few years, have you tried to institute any broad changes or are you just building on what you’ve done as an assistant? Perhaps building on things she taught you as a coach?
A: The main changes I have tried to initiate at Wheeling has been to improve the numbers and communication with our feeder program. We have some great people in charge of the feeder program, and I have high hopes, that with higher numbers of kids interested in girls basketball at the middle school age, we can only improve our program outlook in the years to come. The other thing I’ve been striving to improve is to get our girls to see the importance of details and competing with each other. Both of these things were taught to me at Hersey and throughout my playing in college. If the girls can understand the little things/details of a basketball game, it will lead to bigger things. And the idea that competition among a team is a good thing; the sky is the limit to how far Wheeling Girls Basketball can go.
Q: How often do you and Mary still communicate as colleagues in the league?
A: Fen and I haven’t communicated tons up until this year. Before a few years ago, I was coaching at other schools (Elgin and Stevenson) and it isn’t until the past few years that I came back into the MSL. Now, especially as a varsity head coach, I see her and Barthel as people I can go to for anything. I’m honored I can call them colleagues in the league.
Q: What do you think folks who follow Wheeling basketball can expect from you leading that program and how much are you looking forward to coaching against Mary in the future?
A: This is a tough year. With a shortened season and no seniors, we really see this year as a pre-season to the 2021-2022 season. Our coaching staff have preached to the girls that they need to have something that sticks out to Wheeling basketball. No one will make every shot. No one will never have a break down on defense. However, hustle, aggressiveness, attitude and effort are things we can control every single game. With some more time, practice and competition among our team, I’m excited to consistently improve against great teams, like Hersey, in the MSL. It’s not going to happen overnight, but we’re ready for the challenge.
Q: How was it coaching against Mary tonight overall and did it produce any unique thoughts or feelings?
A: Coaching against Fen and Barthel tonight definitely brought up some emotions. On one hand, I felt like I didn’t belong. For women, who I looked up to for so long and have put so many hours into the game of basketball, I felt not in their league. On the other hand, I was honored to be coaching at the varsity level and to be able to set goals for myself and my program, similar to what Fen and Barthel have accomplished at Hersey. I know they have coached a lot of talented basketball athletes and to be the first alumni to coach against Fen, has been a privilege.
Q: Finally, as you guys grow and play games in quick succession, what types of things are you looking for from your team and who do you expect to make big strides in the coming weeks?
A: With the shortened season, we are looking to make improvements. Every game, every practice. We’re not going to go from scoring 15 points in a game to scoring 60 overnight. But if we remind ourselves of our goals and make small improvements day by day, that’s success for us! We reminded our girls after the first game last night that we’re a team that needs everyone to pitch in. We’re not necessarily going to have a girl that scores 20 or 25 points a night. We’re excited for our junior leadership in Nikki Niznik, Sara Aranda, Ashley Yasak and Julia Kawa, and are encouraged by some talented freshmen coming up in Maya Huelsman and Marlena Miloucheva. The future looks bright and our girls are ready to compete.
Notable stat lines from the game
Hersey Team Stats: 16 assists; 24 of 41 shooting.
Mary Kate Fahey, 14 points; 3 assists
Avery Larson, 4 assists; 5 rebounds
Katy Eidle, 12 points; 3 assists; 3 steals
Mary McGrath 13 points; 5 assists ; 4 rebounds; 6 of 6 FG
For Wheeling, junior Sara Aranda was 2 of 3 from beyond the 3-point arc and freshman Maya Huelsman scored 4 points in her first game.
Taylor Edwards became just the third coach in the history of Arcola Purple Riders girls basketball on Oct. 1 when it was announced she would lead program she was pushing to new heights as a player just a handful of years ago.
Edwards was a two-sport participant at Illinois: four years on scholarship for Illini softball and a walk-on for basketball (she received a scholarship for her last semester). She was a four-sport athlete herself at Arcola and has a deep fondness for the coaches who guided her in her time as a Riders athlete.
Now, she seeks to be the type of coach who gives her girls a similar experience.
Yearning for a new opportunity while never far away, Caprice Smith turned her sights toward a college basketball coaching career, even while being part of a thriving basketball powerhouse.
Hopeful for a chance to return to college hoops over the course of the last few years, the one-time DePaul Blue Demon is delighted to be back coaching in a video coordinator role for the defending Big East Champions.
“It’s my favorite place to think of in terms of if I had to do it all over again, if I wanted to go to college, Lincoln Park is amazing,” Smith said. “It’s not right down within all of the chaos, but you’re still close enough.”
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.