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. 

Eagles hit the ground running with contact days

When a handful of freshmen and a slew of experienced varsity returners walked onto the court of Aurora Christian School Tuesday, Sept. 7, coach Burney Wilkie saw a group of Eagles athletes with an appetite. 

“We have such a small program. I didn’t know what our numbers were going to look like going into the season,” Wilkie said. “We only have 15 in the program right now and I think six of those are freshman. Our freshmen, we’re excited to get going. Our varsity girls are awfully hungry after the fourth-place finish last year [in class 1A]. We got after it pretty good the two days we had this last week.”

Unlike many teams across the state of Illinois, the Eagles had been seeing plenty of one another during the Covid-19 pandemic, with five players split between two AAU teams over the course of the last few months.

For that reason, and because ACS began the school year with in-person learning, stepping onto the hardwood for the first days of IHSA contact days, wasn’t a reunion-like atmosphere for ACS — as it was for many schools across the state. 

ACS has four all-state players returning: first-team IBCA all-state honoree and surefire Division I recruit Anna Griffin, a senior; second-teamer and junior Thaya Luse; third-team performer and sophomore Aspen Weeks; and honorable mention honoree Lexi Lamanna, a junior. Even with its stars, Wilkie estimates his team could be nine-deep with the bench contributing aplenty this winter.  

“I think Aspen and TJ (Luse) both have Division I potential, and Anna’s obviously already got over 30 DI offers right now,” Wilkie said. “We have quite a bit of talent right now and they’re hungry. We talked about on Tuesday how there’s a bullseye on our back.”

With two tournaments already canceled that the Eagles were set to play in this season — the State Farm Classic and the Chicagoland Showcase —  games against the likes of Montini and the hope of a postseason loom even larger. 

Even with ACS open for school, Wilkie is preaching mindfulness and instituting safeguards for contact days, all while preparing the squad with the goal of a state title in mind.  

“We talk about social distancing, wearing the mask, being safe because we want to have a season,” Wilkie said. “You know the question right away on Tuesday was, ‘Is there going to be a state series?’ Which obviously nobody knows at this point. But I told the girls, ‘We’re going to prepare like there is.’ But those are the main things right now, just keeping hopes up that we have a state series this year.”

Huskie hopes high

Hersey coach Mary Fendley says her three-guard combo of Katy Eidle, Mary Kate Fahey and Mary McGrath are “the best guard trio I’ve ever coached for sure.”

Without getting much into the specifics of past players for the longtime Huskies coach, that certainly seems to be a fair assessment. 

“All three of those kids are among the best in Illinois,” Fendley said. “They complement each other so well. Any of the three can (and have had) 20-point games. Yet they are all willing and able to have 10-assist games.”

Eidle, a sophomore, is still piling up offers, including the likes of Big Ten programs Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska and Iowa. Fahey, a senior, is committed to New York University. And McGrath, also a senior, is committed to Division II Lindenwood. 

The Chicago Tribune/Pioneer Press’ Bob Narang profiled Eidle in February. She averaged 15.3 points 4.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.0 steals per game, and shot a school-record 42.6 percent on 3-point attempts.

McGrath’s (13.2 points, 2.7 assists and 2.0 steals per game) and Fahey’s (12.7 points, 4.3 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game) numbers lends credence to Fendley’s assessment of robust production. 

Each could reach 1,000 career points this season: Fahey currently at 864, McGrath at 642 and Eidle at 519. 

A 26-win team a season ago, the Huskies are back in the swing of things having just conducted their third contact day Tuesday.

Fendley said that about a dozen athletes among the junior-senior group have been working in the gym during contact days, while the fresh and sophomores have been putting in skill work outside. 

An active program with numerous multi-sport athletes, Fendley said 13 players involved with the basketball program are in-season in other sports including tennis, swimming, golf and cross country. 

Several Huskies are involved in AAU programs, while others have put in their own work this offseason.

“I have tried to be supportive, without being critical of what they have or have not done,” Fendly said. “I believe it is up to their families to do whatever they feel comfortable and safe doing.”

With 4A regional championships in six the last seven years (and Mid-Suburban East titles three of the last four seasons), a ho-hum year wouldn’t satisfy this team.

The stakes are higher, even in the midst of uncertainty. 

“We think we are a state-caliber team,” Fendley said. “We have our sights on a school record for wins (27 is record) but know that will be hard in our shortened season. And we hope to end our season in Redbird Arena. This will be tough with so many great teams around, including state champion Fremd, but it’s our goal.”

Sykes back in the saddle

An email from a former player left DeKalb assistant athletic director Mark Sykes hungry to man the sidelines of the hardwood once again.

“She pretty much said, ‘Coach Sykes, that’s enough. Time for you to get back in there,’” Sykes said. 

Previously with the girls basketball program for 20 years — 10 as the head coach from 1995 to 2005, and serving in other coaching roles with the program and with the boys hoops team — Sykes cited turnover at the position as the reason for the timeliness of his decision.

Sykes becomes the fourth coach to lead the program since 2015. The Barbs had seen a 10-win improvement over the course of the last two seasons, to a 17-16 overall record in 2019-20 under Tyler Bantz, leader of the program for the last three years. This past season was also the Barbs’ first in the DuPage Valley Conference (DVC). 

‘“There’s been a lot of turnover in the position,” Sykes said. “Not to say that we haven’t had some quality people in there, but for whatever reason, people have come and gone.”

Sykes has seen some members of the program since the beginning of the pandemic, though it hasn’t been on the court. A driver education teacher at DeKalb High School, Sykes has seen players through their driver’s education programs.

“Having the opportunity to be in my teaching position, I’ve seen some of the kids. And that’s what they had said to me the most is that they were looking forward to getting back together,” Sykes said. “I’ve talked about that family presence since I came in and they’re excited.”

After losing senior starters Ashley Nelson, Kayla Webb and Florence Omodayo to graduation, the Barbs will look to guards Sanaa Finner (senior) and Amina Gray (sophomore), as well as some young athletes to fill in the void in the competitive DVC.

For now, the Barbs are just excited to be on the floor, even in an early morning time slot and going through workouts with masks on. The Barbs had their first contact day Thursday. 

“We had a great turnout,” Sykes said. “That just shows kind of something of where we’re at, what type of commitment we have here. And so we’re excited to jump back in.”

The coach, who has seen a lot in his approximately 30 years with Barbs athletics, is wary of what’s to come in terms of public health and decision-making from the IHSA and the state Illinois, but hopeful yet.

“There’s no guarantee that on Nov. 16 that we’re going to have a season,” Sykes said. But I certainly hope this isn’t just a little throw the kids a big teaser and let us come in and do some contact days and something breaks it down for us when the season comes.”

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