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Season's greeting can seem abrupt for area basketball players

Geneva's Mike Landi (left) and Daniel Santacaterina chat during a recent practice.
Geneva's Mike Landi (left) and Daniel Santacaterina chat during a recent practice.

Kaneland senior John Pruett prepared to begin a preseason basketball workout last week, present in body if not entirely in spirit.

Pruett, a standout receiver on the Knights’ football team and also among the school’s most talented basketball players, was less than 100 hours removed from a football playoff defeat to Joliet Catholic, and Pruett acknowledged spending many of those hours brooding over what went awry in the game.

“I’m happy [to play basketball] but football will always be in the back of my mind,” Pruett said. “I’d say by January I’ll only be able to focus on basketball, not football. That’s what I’m hoping.”

But basketball season starts in November, making for a tricky transition for athletes such as Pruett. While it’s common for some football players to also play basketball, the prevalence and prominence of those cases this season around the Tri-Cities area is greater than usual.

Kaneland’s top three returners – Ty Carlson, Drew David and Pruett – were all football starters, and the Knights have nine total varsity players sliding over from football. 

A pair of returning St. Charles East forwards – AJ Washington and David Mason – suited up for football this fall after not playing in the past, while St. Charles North is experiencing the opposite phenomenon, with football-first athletes such as Chase Gianacakos and Garrett Johnson coming out for basketball this winter, joining fellow North football/basketball combo athletes Jack Callaghan, Erik Miller and Camden Cotter.

Batavia (leading basketball scorer/football quarterback Micah Coffey, Tucker Knox) and Geneva (expected contributors Mike Landi, Loudon Vollbrecht and Pace Temple) also are doubling down with some of their school’s top multisport athletes.

Many variables play into the degree of difficulty in transitioning from football to basketball, but the challenges are both physical and mental. In some cases, they are not easily conquered. 

The physical

After St. Charles East’s first-round football playoff loss to Stevenson, Washington turned his attention to preseason basketball workouts, expecting to be in prime shape.

Wide receivers, after all, are known to cover ground quickly.

But St. Francis boys basketball coach Bob Ward observed that football players often find “the walls start closing in on you” once basketball conditioning begins, and now Washington can attest. 

“After football, I felt like I was going to go into basketball really conditioned,” Washington said. “And then I saw myself going up and down the floor, and I was one of the tired kids, one of the only ones with my hands on my knees.”

The constant motion, lateral movement and leaping required in basketball quickly reveals which athletes did basketball-specific conditioning during the fall.

Given Batavia football’s extended playoff run, Coffey not only will have to navigate an abrupt fitness crash course, but do so through aching muscles.

“The whole getting back into shape those first couple weeks, every part of your body is hurting because you have a whole different set of muscle memory you have to refocus yourself on,” Coffey said. “It’s tough, but I wouldn’t trade any basketball experience for the experience I’m getting in football [during the playoffs], so I’ll take being sore any day.”

As football-to-basketball converts seek to restore their cardiovascular capacity, many find that their shooting and dribbling touch also have deserted them, especially if they couldn’t carve out any time in the fall to make a few open-gym cameos.

“Whenever you play basketball during football season with your buddies, you’re just kind of screwing around,” said David, Kaneland’s quarterback in football and point guard in basketball. “The focus isn’t really about making the right pass and stuff, you’re just messing around. When you get to the season, everything’s got to be crisp. It’s just kind of something you’ve got to take some time to get adjusted to, not turning the ball over, not making showboat passes and stuff like that.”

Potentially far worse than coming in out of basketball shape or a rusty jumper is the ever-present risk of football injuries spilling into basketball season.

Geneva quarterback Daniel Santacaterina, Marmion running back Jordan Glasgow and David are among several area basketball players likely to miss the early stages of the season while mending football injuries.

“With our football team just getting knocked out of the playoffs [in the second round], my question mark is who is going to be healthy, when,” Marmion coach Ryan Paradise said. “That’s never a good thing, but I want to make sure our guys are healthy for the long-run rather than trying to rush them back for a Thanksgiving tournament.”

Once football players return to the court, keeping them there can be a challenge, too.

There is a tendency for some football athletes – physical beasts by nature – to run into foul trouble early in a season as they acclimate to the reduced level of contact allowed in basketball.

Ward has a simple solution to that dilemma.

“I just tell them not to foul,” Ward said. “The one great teacher of somebody that has foul problems is the bench. You can’t play if you’ve got foul trouble, so usually that will work itself out.”

The mental

Football is a grueling sport. It’s an emotional sport. And it’s also a supremely popular sport.

Considering all those factors, it’s not uncommon for football players to experience, as Vikings basketball coach Phil Ralston puts it, “a sense of loss” when their football family breaks up.

And depending on how long a football team’s season lasts, sometimes there’s virtually no time to work through those emotions before it’s hoops season.

If an athlete considers himself to be a football player first-and-foremost, replenishing competitive juices for basketball season can be problematic.

“I don’t tell our players basketball has to be their No. 1 sport,” Ralston said. “I don’t care if it’s No. 3 as long as when they’re with us they make it their priority. That’s the only thing we ask, when you’re playing with us, you’re invested in us.”

Pruett intends to take that approach at Kaneland, but it won’t come easy.

Although a potentially banner basketball season awaits him this winter, Pruett said “we had a plan to do big things in football this year,” and moving on quickly from Kaneland’s second-round playoff loss was hard to fathom. The hurt in Pruett’s voice was evident as he grappled with a change in seasons that came much quicker than he envisioned.

“Right out of football’s the hardest,” Pruett said. “This year’s the hardest for me just because I know next year [for football] doesn’t count anymore for me. I’m a senior. I’m done after this year.”

Kaneland coach Brian Johnson said he gives the transitioning football players “a little leeway here and there” if they’re not completely cut-in, mentally – to an extent.

“Things that we do a lot no matter what the time of year it is, as far as if it’s the summer or in the season, I expect them to be able to do,” Johnson said. “It’s the new things that I understand they’re going to struggle with a little bit.

“One thing that’s unacceptable is a lack of hustle. If you know they’re not working hard, then they’re going to hear about it. We’re definitely a team that needs to work hard to be successful.”

St. Charles North coach Tom Poulin knows all about the emotional peaks and valleys of a school year, being a three-sport coach himself. He doesn’t anticipate his contingent of football-to-basketball athletes to shortchange him on effort this season.

“If you’ve done everything you can [in football], which I know those guys have, you’ve given everything you can give, now it’s time to do the same thing in the winter, and they’re really looking forward to having a successful senior season in the winter,” Poulin said. “I had a meeting a couple weeks ago and you could just feel it. Not to sound corny, but you could feel it in the air that they wished they were starting up that day.”

Crisp ball movement and coordinated motion are critical in basketball, and cultivating that level of chemistry often begins with a cohesive locker room.

That, too, can require some catch-up for football players. 

“[The non-football players] kind of got their own thing going, and me and a couple of other football guys kind of got our own thing going,” David said. “So we kind of come together, and it’s just kind of different for a little bit. But once you get a week or two into it, everything’s back to how it usually is with the guys.”

The payoff

While the changeover from football to basketball is seldom seamless, basketball coaches also point to potential upside from having players go through the football grind in the fall.

“No matter how hard you work out in the gym, no matter how hard you train, you can’t simulate game experience, whatever sport you’re playing,” St. Charles East coach Pat Woods said. “So [Mason and Washington] were both in pressure situations. They had to do that. No matter what they did in the offseason, they can’t replicate that environment, so I think that makes them better as players as well.”

Woods also thinks the 6-foot-7 Mason’s months of banging bodies on the Saints football team’s defensive line might make him a fiercer competitor this season.

“I’m hoping it made Dave more aggressive, being on that D-line and going after people,” Woods said. “I’m hoping we’ll see that translate into a more physical presence maybe, especially defense and on the boards.”

Poulin has a soft spot generally for multi-sport athletes, especially ones that have thrived in other sports. He said several players’ multi-sport backgrounds factored into the deepest-advancing basketball team he’s coached in 2008-09, when North made an IHSA Class 4A sectional final.

“You had student-athletes that were successful and were committed and had multiple responsibilities,” Poulin said. “They weren’t just guys who played football, they excelled on the football field. They weren’t just guys who played baseball, they excelled on the baseball field. And they come in and expect nothing less from their teammates and their coaches over the winter.”

Johnson hopes that notion applies to his Knights, and there is some evidence it might.

Last year’s Knights added a basketball Northern Illinois Big 12 East championship a few months after winning a football conference title, with largely the same cast of characters.

“You can’t beat the competition that they go through on a Friday night,” Johnson said. “Some will say there’s no bigger stage than Friday night. It’s nice that they go through that because I think it carries over to basketball from football.”

Give their lungs, hearts and minds some bounce-back time, and teenagers’ trademark resilience should be on display in a gymnasium near you.

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