(As Editor/Publisher of the City/Suburban Hoops Report, a high school basketball publication for nearly two decades and a recruiting service, I have awarded a Coach of the Year in Illinois for the past 26 years. The following is the 27th recipient of the award.)
Lost in Glenbard West’s dominance and all the hoopla surrounding its magical season was a truly exceptional coaching job. It’s time to recognize Jason Opoka.
The majority of the time a Coach of the Year award is typically given to a team that overachieves, comes out of nowhere and darts up the rankings and advances deep into state tournament play. Rarely does the coach of the preseason No. 1 team receive the accolades they should.
But Opoka, who took over the Glenbard West program at the start of the 2019-20 season, steered this team to what it became: a state championship juggernaut with his fingerprints clearly all over it.
Great coaches push all the right buttons. Opoka did just that, starting well before this 2021-22 season and right up through the last three weeks of a dominating state tournament run.
The foresight, implementation and total buy-in of the 1-3-1 defense? Opoka.
The creative and rugged schedule that prepared and battle-tested a team and program like no other suburban team in recent years? Opoka.
The utilization of a gifted big man who you could run an offense through without sticking and leaving the 6-11 Braden Huff on the block? Opoka.
Managing exorbitant expectations and hype while still keeping a team that had never been through any of it before, including a state tournament run, level-headed, locked in and unselfish? Opoka.
There’s an inherent weight for any coach leading the preseason No. 1 team in the state, particularly at a program that’s never been in that position and for a coach who has never been through the pressure of it. Opoka admits he felt it internally at times throughout the season, but he made it a point to keep it all tucked away inside.
“I definitely felt it,” Opoka said of the monster expectations.
But he’s quick to recognize where the credit should be by being named the City/Suburban Hoops Report Coach of the Year: with his players and coaching staff.
“This award or acknowledgement is a team award that demonstrates the players and coaching staff exhibiting togetherness and selflessness on a daily basis, from day one,” said Opoka of being named the City/Suburban Hoops Report Coach of the Year. “They bought into something bigger than themselves.”
Opoka knew when this group of seniors entered high school that it was potentially a special group.
Senior star Caden Pierce remembers the first speech he heard from Opoka — in eighth grade.
Pierce and his Glen Ellyn Titans teammates, the feeder program for the Glenbard West basketball program, were playing at Biester Gymnasium on the Glenbard West campus as eighth-graders. Their future coach was there and talked to them following their game.
“He told us right then that we were a special group with a lot of talent,” said Pierce. “I remember him telling us we had a chance to be something special. That showed he believed in us.”
There obviously needed to be some guidance and nurturing. That’s exactly what Opoka provided as he moved up from an assistant coach in the program to head coach while this senior group were sophomores.
“He’s been a role model for us and someone to look up to since we were in middle school,” said Pierce of his coach. “He’s a players’ coach who instilled so much confidence in us, both in practice and in games.
“Besides being a great basketball mind, I think he’s a kid at heart on the inside, which makes him so approachable. He’s easy to talk to on and off the court, and you can talk to him about anything.”
But before dreams of a state championship run began, the vision was more pragmatic. This was Glenbard West basketball, after all, and winning a conference or regional championship was a logical starting point. Those were actually far-fetched goals for a program with so little history and tradition.
“We always had high expectations with this group,” said Opoka.
But in addition to some obvious talent within the program, Opoka’s decision to turn to the 1-3-1 defense was a defining moment for this team.
As this group was playing as sophomores, Opoka began flirting with the 1-3-1. About the midway point of that season two years ago, the most promising player in the program, Braden Huff, went down with an injury. The Hilltoppers soon began taking their lumps. A young team had hit the wall.
Opoka and his coaching staff started brainstorming, trying to come up with a way to revitalize this group down the stretch.
“We were trying to come up with a way to motivate and energize them,” said Opoka of a difficult stretch in that 2019-20 season. “We wanted to try something defensively. We were long, kind of active, so we implemented a 1-3-1. We did it, kept people out of the paint, had some success with it and got some wins.”
After finishing the regular season playing the 1-3-1 in what Opoka described as “in spurts,” that following summer the staff looked at the returning roster and decided to go all in.
Opoka met with former Elgin coaching legend Jim Harrington to talk 1-3-1 and picked the brains of other coaches, including Chaz Taft at Fenton. They talked drills, practices, principles and characteristics. Opoka broke it down with former College of DuPage head coach Don Klaas, a 1-3-1 guro of sorts.
“Why would we go and try and match feet with little guards with our size when we can disrupt with our length and activity,” said Opoka.
By the time the Covid 2020-21 season finally came about and was played out, Glenbard West was playing 1-3-1 defense roughly 90 percent of the time. The offseason allowed for some more fine tuning and the 1-3-1 defense was soon a menace to anyone going up against it in the summer months.
“Everything just kept clicking with it,” said Opoka. “The size, the tips, deflections and steals that led to transition opportunities. Our kids were passionate and excited about playing it and totally bought in. It became our identity and who we are.”
Boy, did it ever.
The fact of the matter is it became a monster weapon. Opoka could keep a team with very little depth very fresh; they weren’t running through screens while playingman-to-man.
When a player was in any kind of foul trouble Opoka could hide that foul-plagued player in a certain spot of the 1-3-1 to protect and keep him in the game.
Opponents could never simulate in practice what Glenbard West was about to throw at them. There was no way a high school scout team would have the size or length that mimicked the Hilltoppers or could come close simulating their rotations, angles or calls within it, Opoka soon would see.
The next box to check off for Opoka was preparing his team for a state tournament run. Even more important, he wanted to provide the players in his program with unique, fun opportunities. He sought out every state power and beyond that he could play.
“Our goal as a staff was to challenge each and every one of our players with the most rigorous schedule we could develop,” said Opoka. “We knew we could potentially take some lumps, but it didn’t matter. Our ultimate goal was to compete for a state championship.”
There were the Chicago Public League powers, including Young and Simeon. There was Class 1A champ Yorkville Christian and perennial powers Hillcrest and Benet. Highly-ranked Glenbrook South, 28-win Rolling Meadows, Chicago Catholic League champ Leo and sectional winner Larkin were on the schedule.
“We were open to playing anyone, anywhere, just to give our kids life-long opportunities to remember,” said Opoka.
Back in November when he heard nationally-ranked Sierra Canyon with Amari Bailey and Bronny James were coming to Chicago in February, he reached out to Sierra Canyon. He emailed the coaching staff to see if Sierra Canyon would be interested in playing on the front end or back end of its trip to Chicago. There was no response.
But just a few months later, through event promoters, the game Opoka wanted for his players became a reality — and a significant part of the Glenbard West story this season. It’s just that the game’s magnitude became much bigger than Opoka could have ever imagined.
While the opportunity of playing Sierra Canyon in Wintrust Arena was a one-of-a-kind experience for any high school basketball team, the buzzer-beating loss was also the only thing that kept it from being a truly perfect season for the 37-1 Hilltoppers.
The ultimate goal, however, was attained. Glenbard West mauled everyone it faced in the postseason, culminating with a 56-34 blowout win over Young in the state championship.
“After the game it just felt like we did what we were supposed to do,” said Opoka of the state title. “But it really didn’t set in until Monday and Tuesday when we didn’t have to go to practice.”
On the Monday following the state championship weekend in Champaign, Opoka says he was sitting and talking with Pierce and senior Paxton Warden during the final period of the day.
Opoka had his regular planning period while Pierce and Warden were in study hall. It was a time when they regularly talked throughout the season. But on this day, the eighth period of the school day was a little different.
“It was a little bit of a surreal moment,” Opoka says of that particular conversation.
The coaches and players were walking on air throughout the day. They were being congratulated and celebrated after claiming the school’s first-ever basketball state title less than 48 hours earlier. And it’s about that time when Opoka said it started to hit him, starting with the fact he wouldn’t be heading to practice with his players following the period.
“We were talking about how we just did everything we said we were going to possibly do this season,” Opoka said of his reminiscing moment with his two seniors. “It was a great feeling as we just sat there. It has started to sink in and, boy, does it feel good. We will be on cloud nine for a while.
“This is one of those historical moments of leaving a legacy in your community, at Glenbard West, in Glen Ellyn and in the West Suburban Conference. It was special. Hopefully we demonstrated that with class and with a fun-loving passion for the game of basketball.”
Past City/Suburban Hoops Report’s Coach of the Year
2022: Jason Opoka, Glenbard West
2021: Tom Kleinschmidt, DePaul Prep
2020: Tai Streets, Thornton
2019: Mike Oliver, Curie
2018: Mike Ellis, Evanston
2017: Mike Healy, Wheaton South
2016: Gene Heidkamp, Benet
2015: Phil Ralston, Geneva
2014: Tom Livatino, Loyola Academy
2013: Mike Taylor, Marian Catholic
2012: Robert Smith, Simeon
2011: Scott Miller, Glenbard East
2010: Gene Heidkamp, Benet
2009: Ron Ashlaw, Waukegan
2008: John Chappetto, Richards
2007: Pat Ambrose, Stevenson
2006: Gordie Kerkman, West Aurora
2005: David Weber, Glenbrook North
2004: Roy Condotti, Homewood-Flossmoor
2003: Bob Curran, Thornwood
2002: Rick Malnati, New Trier
2001: Conte Stamas, Lyons Twp.
2000: Dave Lohrke, Glenbard South
1999: Gene Pingatore, St. Joseph
1998: Mark Lindo, Naperville North
1997: Gordie Kerkman, West Aurora
1996: Rocky Hill, Thornton