6STERLING – As a sophomore first-year starter last season, Andre Klaver was generally the third scoring option for the Sterling Golden Warriors, deferring many of his half-court touches and would-be shots to point guard JP Schilling – a Class 3A AP All-State Honorable Mention pick a season ago – and forward Lucas Austin.
But this winter, Klaver became more like 1B or 1C as an offensive weapon, improving his game by leaps and bounds to help the Warriors win their first regional championship since 2017 – and nearly defeat eventual Class 3A state champion Metamora in the Galesburg Sectional semifinals.
“My confidence, I feel like, was a big part of my improvement this year,” Klaver said. “My work in the offseason this last summer was a lot more serious than the previous summers, so I feel like that allowed me to be more confident on the court. I didn’t set expectations for myself stats-wise, but I knew my skill level and I knew what I could do on the floor.”
From last season to this season, the 6-foot-3 junior guard’s scoring average nearly doubled, jumping from 8.8 points per game to 16.7 (seventh-best in the area) – landing him smack dab in the middle of Schilling (17.6) and Austin (16.5) as the team leaders. At the same time, his assists per game increased from 3.6 to 4.3, and steals per game rose from 1.1 to 1.8, while the rebounding average remained the same at 4.2.
For his massive improvement from his second year to third year of high school basketball, and for helping Sterling to a 24-9 record and 3A regional championship this season, Klaver has been named the 2022-23 Sauk Valley Media Boys Basketball Player of the Year.
From early on in the season, it was apparent that Klaver – and the Warriors – were vastly improved from a season ago.
After a 17-15 campaign and 84-70 season-ending loss to Rochelle in the Class 3A Rochelle Regional championship last year, Sterling came back in a big way, improving its win total by seven games and winning the regional championship in 2022-23.
A lot of that improvement was mirrored in Klaver’s own development.
At the end of the 2022 calendar year, the Sterling junior was leading the Western Big 6 in points per game with 20.8, and the Warriors were 13-3.
“I feel like I was a part of that [improvement], but that’s also an entire team thing. Luke [Austin] put in a ton of work, JP put in a ton of work, Carter [Chance], Kael [Ryan], Kaedon [Phillips], everyone really,” Klaver said. “They all contributed. That 17-15 last year, that was a young and inexperienced group. And this year, I feel like everyone matured into their role a lot better.”
Around the time he was the leading scorer in the Western Big 6, Klaver was also emerging as a major team leader.
“He became a big-time leader, especially right after Christmastime. He really took charge there in the second half of the season,” Sterling coach Ryan Vasquez said. “He’s not one to shy away from things. He challenged me just as much as I challenged him, and I can tell you that as a coach, that’s what you like.”
In noting the difference in Klaver – who he describes as “physical”, “a competitor”, “a team player” and “a winner” – from last season to this season, Vasquez said he saw improvements across the board.
“Just his all-around game. His on-court stuff is really good, his basketball IQ is top-notch, but the biggest thing is, you can tell that his skill development took a big jump,” Vasquez said. “And that’s a credit to him and him putting in the offseason work, because those are big steps that he took this offseason, and those numbers don’t lie.”
Last year, Klaver established himself as a pesky defender, a good facilitator, a solid rebounder, and a threat to score in transition. This year, he became more well-rounded, improving his 3-point shooting stroke, as well as his physicality to finish through contact.
Out of all the things he does on the hardwood, Klaver enjoys the challenge of defending the opposing team’s top scorer the most.
“My favorite thing that I do on the court is guarding their best player. Getting steals, that gives me energy,” Klaver said. “Offensively, I think getting downhill and creating, whether it be my own finish or creating a wide-open look for my teammate, that’s probably my favorite part.”
When a basketball team has three scorers the caliber of Schilling, Klaver and Austin, keeping everyone happy, moving the ball consistently, and running a smooth and efficient offense can sometimes be a challenge.
But that trio coexisted and worked extremely well together – and was an instrumental part of Sterling’s success this season.
Klaver said that chemistry and cohesion is a testament to their team-first mindsets, but also their trust in one other.
“When there’s three players who can score as good as us, I feel like it can get difficult, but we all just played so unselfishly with each other that it allowed us all to end with what, 16 points per game at the end of the season?” Klaver said. “Us just knowing that we don’t have to take a shot, we can trust someone else on our team allowed for bigger and better things to happen.”
With a handful of newcomers filling different roles this season, there was a little bit of an adjustment period for the Warriors early on as players found and settled into their spots.
Senior forward Kael Ryan returned to the team after missing all of last season due to a torn ACL suffered during football season, and worked his way into the starting lineup as the season progressed.
Sophomore guard Kaedon Phillips started some games at point guard in January, and carved out a consistent role in the rotation as a defensive stopper and fifth starter. Junior Carter Chance and senior Kyle Billings filled the roles of the first guys off the bench, and sophomore Nico Battaglia also started to get more minutes as a shooter off the bench as the season wore on.
Once everyone got comfortable in their role, the Warriors began playing their best basketball of the season.
“It took a little bit for everyone to find their exact spot. Kael was playing limited minutes early in the season, and as the season went on, he got more minutes,” Klaver said. “Kaedon picked up more of a scoring-type role around Christmastime, so I feel like when everyone found their groove, we got a lot better as a group collectively. We had good individual performances when we all started playing together. That’s when it got really fun to play.”
Over the past two seasons, Sterling has faced some of the best competition the state has to offer, both in and out of conference. After competing with the likes of Moline, Metamora, Quincy, Burlington Central and Mt. Zion this year, the Warriors are battle-tested – and they have big-game experience.
Going forward, Klaver expects that experience to be invaluable, not only for himself, but also for the younger players on the team who will assume bigger roles next season, with seniors like Schilling, Ryan and Billings graduating.
“It allows me to be more comfortable, but also setting the tone and letting the younger guys know exactly what it’s like to play in those big games, and the physicality that it takes, and you have to take every possession as if it’s the last one, because, like in the Metamora game, we lost by two points,” Klaver said. “If we would’ve locked up one more possession or gotten one more steal, that’s a game that could go our way.”
Losing 72-70 to eventual 3A state champion Metamora in the Galesburg Sectional semifinals was a tough way to end the season, but in a way it was also a moral victory, proving to the Warriors what they’re capable of and providing a clear sign that they’re heading in the right direction.
With a number of key pieces returning for next season, expectations will be high for 2023-24.
“Losing to the state champs, no one wants to lose, but if we’re going to lose, we might as well to lose to the best,” Klaver said. “We didn’t want to end the year, but if we were going to lose, that’s the team we’d want to lose to, because coming in next year, we know that we have a lot of big pieces that can allow us to do the same thing – if not more – next year.”