The calendar says that Elmhurst’s men’s basketball team began its season on November 15, with a win over Greenville College.
But Head Coach John Baines will tell you that his Bluejays began laying the foundation for their early-season success months earlier.
Most of Baines’s players spent the summer of 2014 on or near campus, and between internships and summer jobs, they pushed each other through daily pickup games and weight room workouts. When the Bluejays reconvened in the fall, the results of their offseason efforts were apparent to Baines.
“Some of them came back looking like different players,” Baines said. “They had worked on their games and they came back stronger. This is a really hard-working group.”
All that hard work produced immediate results. The Bluejays compiled an 11-1 record over the season’s first two months, earning the team a spot in the national Division III Top 25 rankings for the first time since 2009. It also propelled them into the thick of the race for a College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin (CCIW) championship and an NCAA postseason tournament bid.
The team’s work ethic is not so hard to understand, said junior forward Will Nixon. Talent on the Bluejays’ roster runs so deep that earning playing time means matching your teammates’ efforts, Nixon explained. The competition is friendly off the court, not so friendly on the court.
“It gets intense,” Nixon said during a conversation in Baines’s office a few minutes before the team was to start practice. “We’re a real family, but nothing gets in the way of the competition. [Junior forward] Kenny [Payonk] and I really go at each other in practice, and it makes us both better.”
All their pickup-game skirmishes and practice-time clashes have only brought the Bluejays closer together. A few spent the summer working together at a local moving company; others were otherwise occupied with various internships and summer jobs. But most evenings found them going head-to-head on the court.
“It was great that so many of us were up here and had the chance to play together,” said junior guard Kyle Wuest. “That really helps us come together as a team.”
“We’re all friends on and off the court,” Nixon said.
The Bluejays’ work ethic applies to their studies, too. On a wall in the team’s locker room, Baines posts a list of players maintaining a 3.0 grade-point average or better. If the list gets much longer, Baines may have to get a bigger locker room. He said 18 of his current players had earned a spot on the wall. The team’s overall GPA is 3.2.
“Some teams want to do the work and some teams don’t,” Baines said. “This group is selfless and extremely coachable.”
The Bluejays’ best work may be still ahead of them. The team’s lineup is dominated by juniors; all of the team’s leaders in minutes figure to be back for another season.
Baines said his young team “took their lumps” in 2013-14, when they finished 14-11 in his first season as head coach at Elmhurst. Now, they’ve begun handing out some lumps of their own around the CCIW. Their victories this season include a 66-57 road win over nationally ranked conference rival North Central.
“That was valuable on-court experience for these players,” Baines said. Now Baines wants to see if that experience has prepared his Bluejays to compete in the postseason. “They have to make that leap,” he said.
His players are working on it.