Joliet Catholic Academy boys basketball coach Joe Gura was discussing life with youth after Saturday afternoon’s 68-43 loss to St. Patrick.
With Diego Durr joining the starting lineup after the ankle injury suffered almost a month ago by Gunter Nusbaumer, the Hilltoppers’ leading scorer, Gura is starting three sophomores, with Jake Bumstead and Christian Knapczyk the others.
So, Joe, how would you like to be Nick Leonard?
“I wouldn’t want that,” he said. “I wouldn’t be able to handle it.”
Leonard coaches the JCA varsity girls team, which begins postseason play Monday night with a game against Manteno at the Class 3A Bishop McNamara Regional. He will have four freshmen and a sophomore in the starting lineup.
“We have five freshmen total up on the varsity,” Leonard said of point guard Morgan Furmaniak, shooting guard Jenna Hernandez, guard Kendall McLeod and guard/forwards Peyton Van Kampen and Emma Jay. “We start four of them, and one is our first girl off the bench.”
The Angels’ leader on the court has been sophomore Mia Bertino, a state-caliber tennis player.
“Mia has been our most consistent guard and our best shooter,” Leonard said. “Her experience from last season, when we called her up halfway through the season, has helped a lot.”
The Angels are 5-22, and considering their youth and the schedule they play in the East Suburban Catholic Conference and beyond, that’s not bad.
“The biggest thing to look at is the last few years there were times we felt undermanned,” Leonard said. “This year, the Benet game was our first conference game and we lost 70-18. That has been the only one where we were completely out of it. That was our ‘gotta grow up fast moment.’ That was our wakeup call.
“The girls saw right there the kind of energy they need to compete, and they have competed hard. Our offense will be hit or miss, but they have come a long way defensively as far as applying ball pressure.”
The JCA roster also includes another sophomore, Claire Dow, and four juniors – Molly Hibner, Erin Garman, Kellen McLeod and Zora Mihelich – who have been invaluable.
“The big thing is the juniors have allowed the freshmen to play without pouting or complaining,” Leonard said. “They understand the freshmen are talented and give us a chance to win now and in the future.”
If the Angels, who are the No. 8 seed in Sub-Sectional B of the Rich East Sectional, can beat No. 10 Manteno on Monday night, a date with No. 1 Bishop McNamara, the regional host, would come up Tuesday night.
“Bishop McNamara is a good team, but I know we can hang with them.” Leonard said. “We have had other games where we have shown we can compete against good competition.”
Leonard’s sophomore coach, Matt Adler, told him that if the four freshmen were playing up on the sophomore team rather than on the varsity, the sophomores probably would dominate just about everyone.
“Sometimes you have to pinch yourself to realize these are only 14- and 15-year-old kids,” Leonard said.
The point he made about what the juniors have done for his program is similar to what Gura noted about the seniors in his boys program – starting guard Aidan Tyrell, along with reserves Justin Conant, Chris Ray and Tom Pritz.
“My four seniors all will start Tuesday night on Senior Night [when Coal City visits],” Gura said. “I’m so proud of my seniors, their attitude, the way they are helping the younger kids and cheering them on. They understand that we are going young. That right there tells you that you have a good program.”
The Hilltoppers are 6-18, but with their youth and the loss of Nusbaumer for several weeks, the record is understandable.
“I hate losing, but I love the kids I’ve got, and we are going to get better,” Gura said.
“The great thing about this season is we have gotten to assess all these young guys, and assess them for a while with our best player [Nusbaumer] out. Our sophomore team is 12-7 with four freshmen starting [Ben Stoner, John Ehrsam, Ja’Arie Mack and Ante Acosta]. Those freshmen will be competing for spots on the varsity next year when they are sophomores.”
As with Leonard’s girls program, Gura’s boys are experiencing growing pains. But the talent is there – with more on the way from the grade-school ranks – for the Angels and Hilltoppers to be factors in the not-too-distant future.
“It helps our cause having Ryan [Quigley] in administration here and having Sam [Quigley Smith] coaching at Lewis,” Leonard said. “Allie [Quigley] and Sam are great advocates for girls basketball, especially here at JCA.
“It also helps that we are getting to know all the grade-school coaches in the area better. If you’re a young, talented basketball player, we have a spot for you.”
• Dick Goss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.