Boys Basketball

Prep Zone: Late Johnsburg hoops coach Ed Sennett could tell some tales

Former Johnsburg boys basketball coach Ed Sennett.

If you like stories, Ed Sennett had plenty of them.

He loved to tell about the time, as a California Angels farmhand, he struck out Reggie Jackson in spring training with his knuckleball.

Or the time when he met Angels owner Gene Autry, “The Singing Cowboy,” only to find out that the larger-than-life figure he grew up watching on TV was shorter and chubbier than what he expected. Nevertheless, he said Autry was a wonderful guy.

Or when he claimed to have thrown the pitch for the longest-hit home run in minor league history. The batter knocked the ball onto a car of a nearby passing train.

Or the time when an Angels scout came to watch what he had at a pitching session. The scout watched a few minutes and, thinking Sennett was properly warmed up, told him to go ahead and cut loose with his fastball.

“I was,” Sennett said.

“Son,” the scout told him, “stuff like yours is a dime a dozen. You need to learn a pitch.”

Thus, Sennett became a knuckleballer.

Later in life, Sennett became better known as a basketball coach. He took Herscher to the 1982 Class A state tournament with 6-foot-9 University of Illinois-bound Scott Meents leading the way. He also took Johnsburg to the 2003 Class AA state tournament with 6-8 John Smith as the star player.

Sennett, 76, died Tuesday in a hospital in the south suburbs from complications with sepsis after contracting COVID-19. He had experienced poor health since problems encountered after a heart transplant in 2015.

Sennett and his wife, Lynn, lived in Homer Glen for several years.

“You could talk to him for hours on end,” said Jim Meyers, Johnsburg’s former athletic director who hired Sennett as head baseball and assistant basketball coach. “His low-key approach to life is something I always take away. When he had something to say, he’d say it, but he wasn’t a screamer or anything. I always appreciated that.”

Sennett coached high school basketball from 1970 to 2007 at Brown Deer (Wisconsin), Herscher, Galesburg, Clifton Central and Johnsburg. His teams complied 567 wins, which put Sennett into the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

Sennett’s Skyhawks teams were 200-131, and he also is in the Johnsburg Athletic Hall of Fame.

“The thing about Ed, he loved those kids,” said Rick Bailey, Sennett’s basketball assistant through his tenure at Johnsburg. “He loved them all, even the kids that didn’t play.

“Ed had a really great way of understanding what he had in terms of his team and putting them in the best opportunity to win.”

Meyers was a longtime champion of the four-class system in Illinois, which was adopted in the 2006-07 school year. It is ironic that Johnsburg, then the smallest Class AA school in the McHenry County area, was the only one in local history to make it to the Class AA Boys Basketball State Tournament.

“I loved the guy,” said Smith, who went on to twice become the NCAA Division II Player of the Year and won two D-II national championships at Winona State. “He’s just a good man. He’s a guy you liked being around.

“There’s so many different stories. Sometimes I think he was a pretty stern coach, but he’d be intense, then he’d be cracking you up. I can’t really recall him ever cursing. He had words that sounded like swear words. ‘That guy was a mean motorscooter.’ Was that a bad term? He had a bunch of those.”

Sennett pitched and played shortstop at Illinois State, where he was 16-7 with a 3.28 ERA for his career. He was 8-1 with a 2.09 ERA as a senior before the Angels drafted him.

As a basketball coach, Sennett took the low-key approach that Meyers mentioned. He sat way more than most coaches and often eschewed timeouts, preferring to let the players figure things out and work their way through.

“When Ed had players, his magic was putting them in the right spots and shutting up,” Bailey said. “The only time you saw him getting involved was that key moment in the ballgame or that move ahead in the fourth quarter that needed to happen. You’d see what he really knew.

“He was a great chess player as a coach. He just knew when to do stuff. Those are stories that bring big smiles to my face.”

Bailey shared another story that showed the competitive fire that burned deep inside Sennett.

“We’d play 2-on-2 with bench guys, and Ed could still shoot the heck out of the ball,” Bailey said. “He was the most arrogant guy I’ve ever been around [on a basketball court]. My job was to screen and get the heck out of the way. He could shoot.”

Meyers, who officiated basketball games after retiring as AD, thought Sennett’s understated style was also good for players who someday became coaches.

“He thought they would understand things better in that manner,” Meyers said. “I believed in what he did and how he talked to kids. He treated everybody the same way.

“There are a lot of officials and coaches that spoke highly of Ed. The bottom line was if he had something to say, he’d say it. Then he’d be quiet. But you better listen if he had something to say because you probably screwed up.”

Johnsburg’s ride to the 2003 Class AA state tournament was magical. The Skyhawks (30-2) lost only to Round Lake in the regular season and knocked off Prairie Ridge and Boylan to win their sectional, then East Moline to win the supersectional.

Smith, forwards Shane Neiss and Mike Walsh (both 6-5) and guards Adam Vesely (6-3) and Brad Preston (6-2) made nights miserable for opponents’ offenses with their 2-3 zone. Their size was difficult to deal with, and if teams could get inside, Smith was waiting to block and change shots.

Three years later, led by guards Chad Hettermann and Dan Oziminski, along with 6-8 Kyle Fiedorowicz, the Skyhawks (29-1) suffered their only loss in a sectional game against Gurnee Warren, a school more than triple Johnsburg’s enrollment.

If only the four-class system had come sooner.

Sennett’s visitation will be from 4 to 8 p.m. Monday at Knapp Funeral Home in Watseka. The funeral will be at 10 a.m. Tuesday.

There no doubt will be a lot of smiles and great Sennett stories shared about a man who was universally loved by friends.

“Lynn’s gone through a tremendous amount taking care of him,” Meyers said. “He’s quite a guy. It’s a shame, but I think he’s in a better place. He suffered a lot.”

Smith was sad to learn of Sennett’s passing but also stirred by the memories it brought this week.

“He’ll be missed. He definitely left his legacy,” Smith said. “As sad as it is, sometimes bringing back those good old days, even though it’s sad news, what a testament that is. All I’ve been thinking about is all the great times.”

• Joe Stevenson is a senior sports writer for the Northwest Herald. He can be reached by email at joestevenson@shawmedia.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @nwh_JoePrepZone.