MOOSEHEART – J.J. Odunsi is making up for lost time, on and off the court.
The Mooseheart senior sat out his sophomore and junior seasons and only joined the Red Ramblers in January this season, but there’s nothing lukewarm about his emotional investment in the team’s run to Peoria.
“He was the main one [at the supersectional] talking about ‘Hey man, we’ve got to win, we’ve got to win.’ He was the main one pumping it up, even more excited than any of us,” said junior guard Hameed Odunewu, a second cousin of Odunsi’s. “So, yeah, the guy who comes in halfway was more excited than all of us.”
Odunsi’s midseason arrival helped shore up one of Mooseheart’s main deficiencies – depth. He quickly emerged as the team’s top substitute, and likely will factor in heavily this weekend as the Ramblers pursue their first state championship. Mooseheart faces Mendon United in an IHSA Class 1A state semifinal Friday afternoon at the Peoria Civic Center.
Odunsi was part of Mooseheart’s basketball program as a freshman, when he tore his meniscus during a JV game. Odunsi considered himself a football-first athlete and was crushed when he suffered a serious injury playing basketball.
Odunsi said that was the main reason he took an extended hiatus from basketball, not any misgivings toward coach Ron Ahrens or the basketball program.
“He probably thinks that but I didn’t have anything against coach, honestly,” Odunsi said. “It was just the fact that I got hurt away from the sport that I liked more, so it really hurt me. If I got hurt in football it would have been fine for me because I love playing football, but it was the fact that it was basketball season, it really hurt me a lot, and coming back was so hard for me because I’d never been injured like that before, so it was extremely hard coming back. I couldn’t take it, mentally.”
Ahrens and the players occasionally checked in with Odunsi during the past couple years, but the 6-foot-3 guard remained firm in choosing to watch games from the bleachers, not Mooseheart’s bench. Finally, with his senior year ticking away, Odunsi changed his mind. He joined the team in early January, having missed the season’s first eight games.
“He was being stubborn,” Odunewu said. “He was like, ‘Man, I don’t want to play basketball,’ but then you would see him at the gym playing basketball with everybody else, just playing rec ball. We were like, ‘C’mon, dude, you could help us out,’ and he decided to do it. He was being real stubborn, but he ended up wanting to do it, and I’m glad he did.”
So is Ahrens, who praises Odunsi’s athleticism, ball-handling and rugged perimeter defense. Odunsi has made his presence felt this postseason, notching a game-sealing steal against Newark in a tense regional final and adding nine points in Tuesday’s supersectional win against Lanark Eastland. He’s also proven to be one of the best free-throw shooters on a team that struggles at the line, converting 6 of 8 in the Eastland win.
Ahrens said Odunsi has made major strides as he’s shed his basketball rust.
“If he would have played all four years, he’d have been a starter,” Ahrens said. “I firmly believe that because he’s that talented. He’s been a great addition for us.”
Odunsi has Nigerian family background but grew up in south suburban Calumet City. He came to Mooseheart as a freshman and has played receiver/defensive back all four years for Mooseheart’s football team. He is considering attending college at Illinois State, but likely won’t compete athletically.
While Odunsi’s contributions have been valuable, Mooseheart is best known for its trio of South Sudanese transfer students – top scorers Makur Puou (6-foot-10) and Mangisto Deng (6-7), plus starting center Akim Nyang, who stands 7-1.
Odunsi said it wasn’t the chance to become a state champion that coaxed him back to basketball.
“I think I would have come back either way because it was my senior year, and I did miss basketball, I really did, but I didn’t really tell anyone that I did,” Odunsi said. “Whether it would have been a state championship-contending team or not, I would have come back because it’s my senior year.”
Odunsi wears jersey No. 25, which he said is a tribute to close friend and 2013 Mooseheart graduate Kevin Gbadego.
It’s this season’s Ramblers, though, to whom Odunsi feels a debt of gratitude for their acceptance.
“I haven’t told coach, but I really do thank him for allowing me to come back, and my teammates, because he did have to ask them whether they wanted me back or not,” Odunsi said. “So I appreciate them, and thank them all for that.”