CHAMPAIGN – Jim Thomas gathered his Downers Grove North players around for one last huddle as they waited to get their state medals. He had a simple message.
The Trojans’ two games at the Class 4A state tournament March 10 did not go quite the way they hoped. Hours after a semifinal loss to Moline, Downers Grove North was beaten by New Trier 53-34 in the third-place game.
But what a ride to get here.
“He said go up there and smile,” Downers Grove North junior Jack Stanton said. “Save the tears of joy for later.”
Stanton and the Trojans indeed brought a whole lot of joy to the community this season.
There were high hopes for this team coming off a 16-win season, but nothing like this. Downers Grove North shattered the program win record with its 32 wins, including a 19-game winning streak leading up to state. The Trojans won the school’s first sectional championship since 1999, and capped things off with the program’s first-ever state tournament appearance.
“I don’t think anyone expected this, ever,” Stanton said. “We proved them wrong, got all the way down here. Final four in the state, it’s unbelievable.”
Thomas corralled his team for three rounds of pictures, the last underneath the basket, closing down the State Farm Center court.
He does not take this journey for granted.
In his 16th year as Trojans coach, Thomas who has 222 wins, has been through the ups and downs but never lost sight of the ultimate goal. Thomas’ coaching peers made sure to impart on him to savor the journey this group has been on.
“As a player, you grow up and you want to get there and it’s hard to get there,” Thomas said. “As a coach, you start thinking that early. It took me 16 years and I’m just glad I had these guys. They took us on a hell of a ride. All the guys on my coaching tree, Bob Ward, Nazos, Healy, they just said enjoy it. And we tried to do that.”
George Wolkow, one of seven Downers Grove North seniors, sure enjoyed it.
The 6-foot-7 post has a bright future in baseball, a sport he will play in college at South Carolina. But he’ll never forget his last season playing basketball.
“First off, I want to say I hate losing. Two losses in a day kind of sucks, but I wouldn’t want to do it with any other group of guys,” Wolkow said. “Amazing group of guys, amazing coaching staff, amazing fan base, bringing the whole community together. It’s super special. We fell short of the ultimate goal, but the whole process has been unbelievable.”
Indeed, it was quite a postseason run coming out of perhaps the state’s toughest sectional.
The Trojans beat Proviso East in front of an electric home crowd for a regional title, then knocked off No. 1 sectional seed Young. Downers Grove North snapped Hinsdale Central’s 23-game winning streak in a sectional final on Hinsdale’s home floor, then had a stunning blowout of Kenwood in front of a huge fan base in purple in UIC’s Credit Union 1 Arena.
“We have a 24-hour rule. We enjoy those really big victories coming out of sectionals really quick,” Thomas said. “When we have time to walk through the historic journey we went from the beginning to end, I think we’ll appreciate the wins and battles a little bit more.”
Thomas acknowledged the Trojans didn’t play particularly well in the New Trier game after a short turnaround, but that’s not what left him most down.
“As I told the kids, what I’ll be most upset about is that we don’t get to practice together and come back and hoop tomorrow,” Thomas said. “I’m sure the bad taste will leave soon.”
The future is bright in Downers Grove, too.
Stanton is one of the best shooters in the Chicago area and a gem in the junior class that this season was unearthed. Stanton received an offer from Dartmouth this week. Jake Riemer, a 6-foot-7 junior with an offer from Wisconsin-Green Bay, also will return, as will juniors Owen Thulin and Alex Miller from the Trojans’ rotation.
“The whole season, I wasn’t thinking about next year, though. I was thinking about this year and winning this year,” Stanton said. “This group is really special, getting it done the way we did. I’m just enjoying this with my friends while I can.”
It’s a group Thomas will not soon forget.
“There is a lot of good with this team,” he said. “They play the right way, they perform to the end. That’s why they’re probably crushed because they didn’t perform up to our standard. But looking in the rearview, it was a lot of fun.”