Phil Ralston was an assistant coach for a Deerfield team that won a regional title in the 1996-97 season.
That was nice, but winning a regional was hardly cause for major rejoicing, he figured.
Now, Ralston knows better. Seventeen years later, Ralston finally was part of another regional championship team, having helped Geneva break a program drought that put his personal one to shame.
“Man, that’s a long time,” Ralston said of his own dry spell. “I thought it was going to be something I’d be doing every year, but that’s a young coach that didn’t understand how hard it was going to be to get back there.”
Ralston, the Kane County Chronicle Boys Basketball Coach of the Year, helped the Vikings successfully navigate a perilous postseason path. Playing in the typically stacked IHSA Class 4A East Aurora Sectional, the Vikings won their first regional title since 1986 and first sectional game since 1981 in capping off a 25-6 season.
Even with standout junior Nate Navigato and other quality returnees back from a 21-win team the year before, the Vikings had to outperform their No. 6 seed to advance to the sectional championship game.
“It would be absolutely wrong for me to say I predicted this was going to happen,” Ralston said.
Winning that elusive regional championship proved just as treacherous as Ralston expected. Geneva had to beat a Plainfield East team led by Illinois recruit Aaron Jordan on the Bengals’ home floor to open the postseason, then needed a furious fourth quarter rally in the regional final to oust Bolingbrook, the sectional’s No. 3 seed.
That set up a dramatic sectional semifinal victory against No. 2 seed West Aurora, which eliminated Geneva the year before. A back-and-forth game with the Blackhawks ended memorably for the Vikings as senior guard Chris Parrilli hit a short jumper with 3 seconds to play for a 70-68 Geneva win.
Ralston is an exacting taskmaster – not the easiest coach to play for – but Parrilli said Ralston seemed more open to incorporating suggestions from players and assistants this year than in the past.
Ralston – in his sixth year at Geneva after coming over from Grant – preaches working for high-percentage shots, and this year’s squad responded to the tune of an impressive 48 percent shooting from the floor.
But while some of Ralston’s points of emphasis remain constant, the Vikings’ frequently switching defenses often catch opponents off guard.
“To some degree, I like to be a little bit of an enigma,” Ralston said. “If people think they’ve pigeon-holed me one way or another, I like to think sometimes I have some tricks up my sleeve.”
The Vikings slumped in the early stages of the conference season but finished on much sturdier footing, tying St. Charles East and St. Charles North for second in the Upstate Eight Conference River behind champion Larkin. Ralston said this year’s Vikings were more athletic than his previous teams, which might have caused them to take defense for granted until the coaching staff cracked down in January.
“I really think focusing on that aspect of our game, on the defensive end, really helped,” Ralston said. “I’m not sure we could have gotten much more out of our guys than we did from a standpoint of wins and losses. Obviously there were some disappointments, but to essentially go almost a full month from early February to almost mid-March without a loss, we kind of hit our stride at the right time.”