Joliet West’s hopes for this season were much higher than almost anyone outside the program realizes.
Joliet West’s hopes for this season were much higher than almost anyone outside the program realizes. The Tigers expected to return the core of a team that beat Simeon at the Pontiac Holiday Tournament. A few pieces were added and everyone was a year older. The state finals in Champaign were the goal.
COVID-19 hit those plans hard. It’s been a challenge for every school, but there probably isn’t a team in the area that lost as much at Joliet West. Jeremy Fears Jr., a top 20 nationally-ranked sophomore, transferred to La Lumiere, Ind. back in October when the season was delayed.
Senior Trent Howland, a strong and athletic force in the post, is sitting out the season. He’s a major football recruit that has signed with Indiana. The Tigers lost a transfer to Simeon as well.
Howland was on the bench watching the game on Tuesday and Fears, on spring break from La Lumiere, was watching in the stands. So the old team was in the gym, but not on the floor.
The program is stacked with talented young players and several of them have larger roles than expected this season, but it was seniors Ashawn Burbridge and Jaiden Lee that lead the way in a 57-45 win against visiting Oswego East on Tuesday.
“We work on rebounding as a team a ton in practice and we knew that is what we had to do today,” Lee said.
Burbridge is just 6-3, but he’s always had a nose for the ball and has matured into a game-changing force as a rebounder. He scored 16 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. For the TIgers (7-2). Lee added 12 points and nine rebounds.
“[Burbridge] has been a double-double machine,” Joliet West coach Jeremy Kreiger said. “We knew that [Oswego East] was outrebounded in five of their wins this season so we wanted to be able to dominate the paint on both sides of the floor. [Burbridge] and Jaiden Lee do an unbelievable job of getting second chance opportunities.”
The Tigers led by seven at halftime, opened the third quarter with two quick baskets and never looked back. They outrebounded Oswego East (6-2) 39-18, but turned the ball over 24 times.
“That’s a credit to Oswego East,” Kreiger said. “We haven’t faced a team with equal athleticism and the length and wingspans they have. Before this game we were averaging 11 turnovers a game so that was sort of an aberration.”
Patrick Robinson and Odin Lium each scored 10 for the Wolves.
“We lost a lot from last year and what we thought we would have this year and kind of had to put it back together from the bottom,” Burbridge said. “It was great to see [Fears] give us the support and come back and watch us.”
Kreiger said he noticed several players on his team smile when Fears first walked in the gym.
“They still love each other,” Kreiger said. “As much as [Fears] is experiencing success out there, he misses this. He was born and raised here. His younger brother is going to be here. [Fears] spoke with them before the game. They spoke at halftime. He wants to be out there. He watches our games on the stream. So yeah, it meant a lot to the team because they miss them. They miss each other.”