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Lakes trio evolves — and excels — together
By Patricia Babcock McGraw | Daily Herald Columnist

From left, Lakes seniors Jake Kohler, Direll Clark and Justin Bergeron have played a huge part in the team’s record-setting season this winter.


Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

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Published: 2/21/2013 9:25 PM

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There was the ball hog, the short kid, and the role player, who wasn’t even sure, by the way, what role was best for him.

Direll Clark, Jake Kohler and Justin Bergeron have come a long way in their four years at Lakes. But the most important thing for them is that they’ve made the trip together.

They’ve been a package deal since their sophomore year, when they were all moved up together to the varsity. They began as reserves but quickly got opportunities as starters.

Now seniors, Clark, Kohler and Bergeron are putting the final touches on their basketball careers, and they’ll leave Lakes as the leaders of the most successful class in program history.

“When we got brought up as sophomores, we’d sometimes talk about what it would be like when we were seniors,” said Kohler, a versatile guard who can hit 3-pointers but also bang inside. “We knew we’d be pretty good.”

They’ve been better than that. The “Big Three” have led Lakes to a school-record 22 victories this season, not to mention a share of the North Suburban Conference Prairie Division title and the No. 2 seed in the Class 3A Antioch sectional, which opens with regional play next week. All three average between 11 and 12 points and are in the top 10 in career scoring at Lakes.

As juniors last season, Clark, Kohler and Bergeron engineered a massive turnaround for the Eagles. The season before, when they were sophomores, Lakes managed just 9 wins. But last year, the Eagles did an about-face and went 20-11 while winning the program’s first-ever regional title. They also advanced all the way to the Class 3A sectional championship game at Grayslake Central.

“This summer when I walk into the gym for the first time and I don’t see those three there working out and getting ready for the season, it’s going to be really weird,” said Lakes coach Chris Snyder, who coached the “Big Three” as freshmen and then promoted them when he took over as head varsity coach the next year. “They’ve been such a big part of our program for so long. They’ve definitely left their mark. And they’ve set a precedent for what kind of kids we want in this program, and what kind of kids we’d consider moving up (to varsity as underclassmen). They’ve given us a nice template for the future.

“We felt like Direll, Jake and Justin were really ready to be up on varsity as sophomores, but the funny thing is, when you look at old pictures of them, they look so different than they do now. They were smaller and shorter and definitely not as muscular. They’ve changed a lot since then.”

Clark’s approach to the game is certainly different.

He moved into the district from Round Lake just before he started high school and admits to not always being the most disciplined player in grade school and junior high.

“When I came in, I was kind of used to doing my own thing,” Clark said with a laugh. “I drove the lane a lot and shot a lot and didn’t really look to pass to my teammates. I guess I was kind of a ball hog. But then I started passing more. I just thought it would be better to do whatever coach asked.”

Clark, a strong guard whose football player frame helps him absorb contact as he drives the lane, helped the freshman team get off to a 7-0 start before he was moved up to the sophomore team for the rest of the season.

Meanwhile, Kohler was just trying to move up on the growth chart back then. Barely 5-foot-10 as a freshman, he was small and wiry. But that didn’t stop him from having a big, strong personality.

“I was this small, arrogant kid when I was a freshman,” said Kohler, who is now 6-foot-4. “In eighth grade (at Milburn West), I was on a really good team and we beat other teams easily. I think we only lost two games ever.

“I came in thinking I’d be doing the same things in high school. But the talent at this level put me in my place fast. That was good for me because it kept me working hard. Then I started growing. That helped me, too.”

A growth spurt helped Bergeron find a home.

He was a point guard in eighth grade at Milburn Central. But as he grew, he wasn’t sure that position would suit him anymore. And he was right. Bergeron’s body changed quickly. Also a football player, he sculpted himself into an eventual college recruit. In fact, Bergeron, a wide receiver and linebacker, will actually be playing football with Clark, a star running back, at Winona State in Minnesota next fall.

On the basketball court, Bergeron wound up becoming a perfect fit in the post. He’s a banger inside, a relentless rebounder and sets the tone defensively in the paint.

“I got away from playing point guard because I was getting bigger, but when I was a freshman, I still wasn’t sure exactly what role would be best for me because I was used to (playing on the perimeter),” Bergeron said. “I just started doing little things, like setting good screens, playing good defense and rebounding.”

Of course, Bergeron was quickly entrusted to do more, as were Clark and Bergeron.

They remember fondly the day they were asked by Snyder to move up to the varsity as sophomores. They were nervous, but took comfort in the fact that they could tackle such a lofty assignment together.

“All three of them were kind of quiet at first, they were trying to take it in. But you could also see a slight smile on their faces. They were happy,” Snyder said. “We knew we were going to have some growing pains that year with three sophomores up.

“But we also knew that all three of those guys could help us and that if we got them a lot of experience early on, it would pay off later, and it has. The reward is now.”

Clark, Kohler and Bergeron want to keep living in the now. They don’t want their senior year to end. They dream of taking the Eagles downstate.

“It’s hard to think that we won’t ever get to play together after this,” Clark said. “We want to keep playing.”

“We’re going to play more games,” Bergeron said. “Coach (Snyder) brought us up as a first-year coach because he wanted to set the foundation for what he wanted his program to be like. We haven’t hit all of those goals yet.”