JOLIET – Joe Gura turned to show off the back of his T-shirt.
“I’m going to wear this every day, until this season’s over,” Gura said Friday as his Joliet Catholic boys basketball team competed in the Joliet West Shootout.
The words on the back were to the point: “Regional Champions, Sweet 16.”
“I’ll bet you never thought you would see that on a Joliet Catholic shirt,” Gura said.
The Hilltoppers became quite a story in March, when they reached the Class 3A sectional final at Rich East before falling to mighty Morgan Park. They won four previous postseason games and finished with a 12-21 record. No other JCA team had reached a sectional final since 1988.
The starting lineup of Jalen Jackson, Harold Davis, Colton Kolowski, Drake Fellows and Luke Mander is intact. Of course, Fellows is a baseball pitcher above all else and was not at the shootout Friday.
“I won’t see Drake this summer,” Gura said. “The next Don Drysdale is off somewhere in this country throwing his 90 mile-per-hour fastball.”
As important as Fellows is, even in his absence, the Hilltoppers’ basketball team is beginning to look as if it belongs on the same floor with more ballyhooed programs. Of course, surviving in the East Suburban Catholic Conference can be difficult even for quality teams.
“It’s absolutely a good thing that we have all our regulars back, the way they are growing as players and we’re growing as a program,” Gura said. “They’re starting to play system ball. The finish we had at the end of last season, we want to continue that.
“Of course, there is a lot of work to be done.”
Gura said the ESCC had seven of its nine members win regionals, with six reaching sectional finals and one, Benet, finishing second in the state in 4A.
“It’s a monster conference,” Gura said. “Our goal is to compete better in it. And now we have more basketball players who can compete at that next level. Now we’ve got to challenge those great programs, and that’s not going to be easy.”
Gura noted JCA has seven players with significant varsity experience and six of the seven are entering their junior season, with two years remaining. He said the junior and sophomore classes are good, and this is the best freshman class he has had at JCA in terms of depth.
“The summer is about me finding out who our 12 or 13 players are going to be,” Gura said. “I finally figured out that how we played, how I evaluated everything and whether we were improving was what mattered in the summer. So I do treat things different than I used to.
“Now what we have to do is get to where we do play our best and win some of those games that last year we played well in and didn’t win.”
Jackson’s reputation is that of a scorer, and he has been that in his first two seasons. What made the Hilltoppers more interesting and more competitive last winter was the balance that appeared in the scorebook.
“The most important thing to me is we were getting four guys in double figures most nights,” Gura said.
“We share the ball well now and trust each other,” Jackson said. “We get better looks. That’s a big pressure released from me, that I trust all my teammates.”
Mander said the way last season finished helped build chemistry.
“We shared the ball a lot better,” he said, “and that’s something we weren’t doing at the beginning of last year. We look like a smoother team now. If we play all four quarters every game, I think we will do pretty well in our conference.”