Goss: Hilltoppers fall but take another baby step
By Dick Goss firstname.lastname@example.org December 26, 2012 11:12PM
JCA's Keith Craig (22) runs in for a layup during Wednesday's game between Joliet Catholic Academy and University High School. | Paul Bergstrom ~ For Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 28, 2013 3:45PM
Joe Gura knows life in the limelight.
He coached at Lockport for 21 years, the last 11, ending in 1998-99, as head coach, with current Porters coach Lawrence Thompson Jr. his assistant. From there, he spent three seasons at T.F. North, three at Pontiac, four at Plainfield North and two at Bishop McNamara before becoming the Joliet Catholic coach.
While at Lockport, he annually took his team to the Pontiac Holiday Tournament, the biggest Christmas tournament stage of all. His Plainfield North teams went there, and of course he was the host coach while at Pontiac.
All great memories.
But that’s all in the past. Before Gura’s second Joliet Catholic team squared off against University High on Wednesday afternoon on a smaller stage, at least from an attendance standpoint, at the Romeoville Christmas Classic, he said this may not be Pontiac, but how his team performs matters just as much.
“This tournament is as important to me as playing Peoria Manual on the second night at Pontiac and the loser goes home,” he said. “This is as important as when we made the Final Four there.
“I take this very, very seriously.”
Joliet Catholic has not enjoyed a season above .500 in three decades, and this one will be no exception. Gura knows that, and he is not predicting the impossible.
Wednesday’s 54-47 loss to University dropped the Hilltoppers to 2-12, and as Gura noted, when the regular season resumes in January, the schedule will be a killer.
“We get the six best teams in the (East Suburban Catholic) conference right away, and our conference is very good,” he noted.
Wins and losses are the motivating factor for most programs, and Joliet Catholic is that way — to a degree. But there is more to what Gura is attempting to accomplish.
“Wins are hard to come by, and sometimes there is no substitute for actually winning a game,” Gura said. “I’d like to see us win whatever games we can in this tournament.
“But it is baby steps. We know that. I have to stay positive with these kids. We didn’t think the results would come right away on the varsity level, but every so often, you do want to win a game, throw these kids a bone.”
Gura had two freshmen (Jalen Jackson and Harold Davis), a sophomore (Keegan Tyrell) and a junior (Jimmy Elias) in the starting lineup Wednesday, along with senior captain Ryan Peter, whom Gura calls “one of the best captains I ever had. He takes care of the usual captain roles and has taken the young kids under his wing.”
Considering their youth, the Hilltoppers cannot match up physically with most teams on their schedule. They did not match up with University (9-3), whose lanky center, Maxwell Rothschild, finished with a killer 23 points and 13 rebounds.
And yet, Joliet Catholic went on an 11-0 run, climaxed by Jackson’s back-to-back three-pointers, to get within 45-44 midway through the fourth quarter. Jackson finished with 15 points, Peter with 11 and Keith Craig with 10.
“That was a career high for Jalen (Jackson),” Gura said. “He did a areal nice job.
“I think in general the guys come out of today with a positive feeling. The reason is how they played. Like everyone, we have an eye on wins and losses, but it’s how we did it that matters. Individually and as a team, we’re getting better.”
Gura said what went on in summer camp and some open gyms convinced him Jackson and Davis were the right fits to play up on the varsity. “They were the most ready talent-wise, and they have the moxie,” he said.
Both freshmen played AAU ball for James “Tiger” Foster, one of the “Three Amigos” along with Albert Barnett and Deon Bryant who keyed one of Gura’s best Lockport teams — in fact, a supersectional team.
“We also have a freshman, Michael Johnson, whose dad played for me at Lockport who is on our sophomore team,” Gura said. “Our sophomore team has 10 wins already (10-3) and our freshman teams (A and B) have eight wins combined.
“The year before I got here, they won one game on the freshman level and two on the sophomore level, and we won two on the sophomore level last year. So the talent level is slowly moving up. Everything is patience. I knew the results would begin to show first on the lower levels.”
Still, what transpired Wednesday does make you feel the Hilltoppers, who won a game last weekend, may not be blanked in this Christmas tournament.
“We did a lot of good things,” Gura said. “We could have died when we were behind, said it’s OK, we’ll come back and play tomorrow. Instead, we made a nice comeback.
“We got behind because we threw the ball away against pressure. But then we played well the rest of the first quarter and we made the nice comeback in the second half.”
As Gura said, they’re taking baby steps. But those steps are pointing in a positive direction.