High school basketball: The coaches, teams and players facing big expectations

Typically we don’t — or shouldn’t — heap together high school sports with pressure.

Sure, there are pressure situations for players, coaches and teams throughout a season that everyone grows from in a positive way. But this isn’t a multi-billion dollar industry as the next level of athletics has turned into.

And we are still talking about a sport where the oldest performer is 18 years old, so succumbing to pressure shouldn’t be met with any eyebrow-raising.

But Illinois high school basketball has a presence in this state and, certainly, within its own little hoops world there are a lot of eyes and attention on the sport. With the history of Illinois prep basketball so strong, along with media attention, hype and a fixation on individual player rankings, there are some heavy expectations.

So we’ll call this a preseason high school basketball pressure barometer if you will. Where does the pressure lie, fair or not, for a few of the central figures of this upcoming season?

What first-year coach at a new school faces the most pressure this season?

Jamere Dismukes takes over a program at Homewood-Flossmoor that was just overwhelmingly voted the best coaching job in the south suburbs. Obvious high expectations come with that as H-F has always been considered a school where you can win and win big.

But with a roster that probably isn’t ready to win big yet, the pressure eases for Dismukes as he begins his honeymoon period.

Leo was expected to be a state contender in Class 1A. The bulk of the team was set to return after the Lions went 25-5 and won the Chicago Catholic League Blue a year ago. Then some controversial circumstances engulfed the program and respected and successful coach Jamal Thompson, a Leo alum, abruptly resigned in early September.

Enter coach Jimalle Ridley. A longtime basketball figure in the city, both as a high school basketball assistant coach with prominent programs and on the club basketball circuit, Ridley steps in to salvage what was expected to be a big season.

However, under the circumstances, which include a player exodus and the head coach leaving two months before the season, the pressure is off.

That leads us to Conte Stamas and Brother Rice. And this is where there is some immediate and obvious pressure to win.

This Brother Rice team, led by senior star point guard and Niagara recruit Ahmad Henderson, was built to win this year. This team has grown together and blends senior talent with up-and-coming young players for added support. The Crusaders won 24 games a year ago and have realistic hopes of competing for its first sectional championship since 2005.

Stamas not being hired until late August adds a hurdle in overcoming the pressure that mounts in taking over a team built to win. Stamas missed the entire summer to implement his system and gel with players.

Fortunately, Stamas is a veteran who has been through a whole lot as a coach. He’s coached in some high-profile situations. Plus, early word is that Stamas made a very favorable first impression as both the players and their families were on board from the jump after meeting with their new coach.

A good sign is that in this world of constant player movement, no significant piece transferred out of Brother Rice.

But this will be a preseason-ranked team with big expectations and a coach who will have been on the job for three months when the season tips off.

What team will face the most pressure to win this season?

This is a tough one. When you really start to peel back the layers of what could develop this season, there are plenty of options.

How would you like to be a part of legendary coach Robert Smith’s final team at Simeon and arguably be the best team in Class 3A?

Rolling Meadows, led by senior star Cameron Christie, is loaded with size, talent and experience. An always-tough postseason road will again be challenging to navigate in March, but the Mustangs have arguably the best team in school history.

But with all the hype surrounding St. Rita’s individual talent for the past two years, along with added ammunition this offseason, it’s St. Rita’s time to shine. Yes, the dominant figures on this team are juniors, but they are the three best junior prospects in the state. That’s a first in state history.

Valuable experience has been gained. This collection of talent, which has been talked about so much in their younger years, is primed and ready. And making some St. Rita history is more than doable.

What player faces the most pressure to perform this season?

This goes back to the aforementioned earlier premise. We are talking about high school basketball players, so piling on “pressure” isn’t ideal.

But there is such enthusiastic anticipation to see Jeremy Fears, Jr., play this season — for a boatload of reasons.

He’s a consensus top 50 talent in the country. He’s headed to Michigan State. He’s a floor general who will have the ball in his hands. But the biggest reason is most of the state has only heard about him and hasn’t seen the talented point guard play since he was a promising freshman.

Fears returns to his hometown, where his father starred 20 years ago and where he will play with his hot-shot younger brother, after spending the past two years at a prep school. For the most part, he was out of sight, out of mind while at La Lumiere in Indiana. Fears didn’t even play with an Illinois club basketball program.

But this is a player who is built for the pressure. For starters, he plays under control and doesn’t have that wild basketball gene that can lead a player to try to do too much under the circumstances.

Also, Fears has played quality competition. In addition to his prep school schedule, Fears played both on Nike’s EYBL circuit and for USA Basketball in helping them to a FIBA U17 World Cup.

While this is a player who will carry a big load and be a must-see player in the state, he leads a team that now has become a state title contender. And one with a whole lot of eyes on it.

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