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- More from John Lemon
In a contrast of coaches you don't see every day, West Aurora's Gordie Kerkman in his 36th year leading the Blackhawks matched up against Proviso East rookie Donnie Boyce Tuesday night at a packed Hinsdale Central gym for the Class 4A supersectional title.
Following Proviso East's 62-51 victory to deny West Aurora a spot at state, which coach do you think was lamenting how hard it can be to reach today's generation of players?
Just try to find a coach sounding more old-school than ... that first-year coach Boyce.
(Admit it, anyone who has followed basketball in this area was going Kerkman there.)
Kerkman and his 735 career wins vs. Boyce and his now 31 - still with zero losses - and this was Boyce's reaction on taking the storied Proviso East program back to state for the first time since 1993.
"I've been through the fire as a player and a little as a coach and I don't think anybody really realizes how difficult it is to really get the young kids to buy into our system," said Boyce, one of the famed "Three Amigos" on Proviso East's back-to-back 1991 and '92 state champion teams with Michael Finley and Sherrell Ford. "They play so much basketball year-round. It's so different than 20 years ago. At the beginning of the year I really thought I could relate to these kids and I can but things have so changed so much in 20 years. It's so difficult to reach kids because obviously they play a lot of basketball all year round. The hardest thing I had to do was get them to follow my lead and trust. We both had to make adjustments. I had to adjust to them, they had to adjust to me, I'm so glad early in the year I let everyone know what is expected of them and what it means to be a Pirate."
I couldn't help but thinking if someone like Boyce, not that far removed from being a college star and professional player himself who a year ago at this time was assisting Triton to a third-place finish in Division II basketball, has that much trouble reaching his kids what some of our area coaches must go through at times.
Boyce's emotions were on full display after the win with Pirate fans celebrating all around him. He had tears in his eyes wishing his mom who had suffered a stroke and a good friend who had passed away almost a year to the day could have been at the game.
One person who was there was his former coach Bill Hitt. The two exchanged a huge bear hug.
"So many people tried to write me off, told me I couldn't do this," Boyce said. "I have aspirations of being a pro coach. It feels so good to exceed everybody's expectations because I don't think nobody expected us to be 31-0 right now."
Kerkman recalled Boyce in his playing days at Proviso East. While the teams never met during the high school season, Kerkman quickly remembered his Blackhawks losing by 3 and 5 points to Proviso East in the Oak Park summer league.
"Two really good games," Kerkman said. "I was hoping we would get to play them in the state tournament."
Batavia ended that possibility with its memorable sectional win over the Blackhawks that year. Instead of going up against Boyce as a player, 19 years later West Aurora did with Boyce as a coach.
The Blackhawks never led Tuesday. They turned the ball over too often - not the first team to do that against Proviso East but disappointing because West Aurora played good enough defense and held its own on the glass enough for a possible upset if not for all the mistakes.
"I don't think we handled it the right way," sophomore guard Jontrel Walker said of Proviso East's press. "I think we fell into their game and not our game and we should have slowed it up but it's all on me, I'm the point guard, I should take control and I didn't do my job tonight."
In his final high school game, Juwan Starks scored 17 points to lead West Aurora. He became the school's all-time leading scorer with a putback basket in the second quarter.
Starks finished his career with 1,627 points, just ahead of current Ball State coach Billy Taylor's 1,613 from 1988-91 after also passing Kenny Battle (1,164) among others during his four-year varsity career.
"He's done a heck of a job for us," said Kerkman, who was then asked where Starks ranks among the best players he's ever coached.
"He's in the conversation. I don't like to rate, there's just one, the best one was Kenny Battle and after that I'd put them all in a big lump. We've been very fortunate to have some very good kids and he's been one of them."
Walker, like Starks a rare starter as a freshman, has two more years left to leave his mark. He scored 12 points Tuesday and reflected on what he's learned playing the past two years with Starks.
"He's just a great player," Walker said. "He never gave up. Every time we need a big shot he always stepped up and made it. You could always look up to him and he was a great leader out there."
Walker is one of four starters returning next year for what should be another strong West Aurora team. Kerkman and Walker both said the team can learn from Proviso East's pressure.
"Tonight's game was what I've been telling these guys early in the year we're going to have to learn how to take care of the ball better because when you play the good city teams most of them play that aggressive quick defense and we have to learn to play people like that if you want to go somewhere," Kerkman said. "We're right on the cusp of getting to Peoria and that's who we had to play. I don't think we were really ready for it."
"It makes us hungry," Walker said. "We are going to get right back to work. I'm going to be the leader next year. Hopefully I take control of my team and make it down to state next year. We're going to get right back to work as soon as we can."
An attitude any coach - from Kerkman to Boyce to everyone in-between - can appreciate.