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Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Joe Henricksen

Shoes to fill: A look at the area’s biggest high school basketball coaching changes

Marian Catholic Rick Romeli talks to his players during as timeout as the Spartans play Homewood-Flossmoor. (Allen Cunningham/For the Sun-Times)

There was heavy traffic this past spring and summer in the high school basketball coaching turnover lane across the area.

Here is a closer look at a few of the specific jobs that were filled and what’s ahead for those programs with a new coach in charge. 

Biggest shoes to fill: Simeon

These shoes could be some of the biggest ever to fill. 

Robert Smith turned Simeon from one of the state’s best, most recognized programs when he took over for Bob Hambric to one with a national name and reputation in his 19 years as head coach. 

The likes of Derrick Rose, Jabari Parker and other high-profile players helped in elevating Simeon to national status, but the fact of the matter is Smith stepped down following last season as the most accomplished and successful coach in state history. Smith won six state championships and over 500 games. 

Now Simeon turns the program over to Tim Flowers. 

Flowers, a former star at Simeon who teamed up with Rose to help the Wolverines to a pair of state championships, was on Smith’s staff the past couple of years. So there is a familiarity with Simeon basketball. He knows what it’s about and how this highly-successful operation has run. 

Nonetheless, it’s an overwhelming position to be in for a first-year head coach. The good news is the cupboard isn’t entirely bare, though it’s not stockpiled like it’s been over the past two decades. 

Other huge shoes to fill: Marian Catholic and Stevenson

The Simeon job and all that goes into replacing Smith as coach is at another level. But there are two other jobs that clearly stand out when it comes to massive coaching shoes to fill. 

Stevenson’s Pat Ambrose and Marian Catholic’s Mike Taylor were fixtures in building their respective programs, won big and, more importantly, understood all the parameters surrounding their basketball jobs.

Taylor built the foundation and established a winning culture at a program that, many forget, had done absolutely nothing in basketball before his arrival. 

Check this out: Marian Catholic basketball had one regional title and a single 20-win season in the 42 years prior to Taylor being hired in 2003. 

With all of the south suburban basketball options, it’s not as if Marian Catholic was a destination place for young basketball players. But Taylor made it one, and it resulted in Taylor putting together nine 20-win seasons, averaging 18 wins a year, and capturing nine regional titles and the only three sectional championships in school history. 

The 20-year run also included a Class 3A third-place state trophy in 2018. 

Superstar Tyler Ulis came and put Marian Catholic basketball on the map. But Taylor kept churning out wins, instilling discipline and filling rosters with talent well after Ulis headed to Kentucky.

While the highlight of Stevenson basketball came during the Jalen Brunson years, under Ambrose the program has been arguably one of the most consistent ones over the past 20 years –– the Patriots averaged 21 wins over two decades. There has been a high standard set when it comes to Stevenson basketball, due to the preparation, teaching and coaching pedigree of Ambrose. That is going to be awfully difficult to replace. 

Rick Romeli and Will Benson get the opportunity to fill the shoes at Marian Catholic and Stevenson, respectively.

Marian Catholic did go with someone very familiar with the Chicago Heights school in hiring Romeli, a 2001 graduate who played under former coach Bryan Tucker. He was the East Suburban Catholic Conference Player of the Year as a senior. 

Romeli will have his chance to put his stamp on an established program after spending years as a college assistant coach at St. Xavier and Governors State. He’s been the associate head coach at Governor’s State since 2014. 

Benson replaces a coach in Ambrose who won four state trophies, including a state championship in 2015, and finished his career with over 500 wins. 

In 13 seasons as a head coach, including stints at Harvard, Marengo and Huntley, Benson has compiled a 182-200 overall record. But he’s 104-43 with two regional titles over his last five years at Huntley, including a school record 27 wins in both 2019-20 and 2021-22. 

Best chance to win immediately: West Aurora

Of all the new coaching hires throughout the area, Mike Fowler will have the best chance of winning at a high clip in his first season .

There is some talent to work with for Fowler, a key player on West Aurora’s 2000 state championship team. He takes over his alma mater after spending five seasons as the head coach at Plainfield East, guiding the Bengals program from 2017-2022. 

Fowler has a cornerstone to build around in 6-4 junior Terrence Smith. The athletic wing is among the top 25 prospects in the Class of 2025. Plus, senior guards CJ Savage and Jordan Brooks return. That should be enough to push close to 20 wins and contend for a regional championship. 

Biggest rebuild: St. Rita

This may be rubbing salt on the wound after a mass player exodus from the program, the likes of which has never been seen before in the history of Illinois high school basketball. 

St. Rita literally went from being the likely preseason No. 1 team in the state to trying to scratch and claw its way out of last place in the Chicago Catholic League.

There are a lot of good things being said about St. Rita’s new head coach, Ross Burt, but the rebuild he’s facing is massive. Burt has some small college coaching experience and spent the past three seasons at Payton, a selective enrollment school in the Chicago Public League. 

Biggest name hire: Ronnie Fields

An all-time great in Illinois high school basketball, Ronnie Fields was hired as the next Hope Academy head coach this past June. 

While this is Fields’ first head coaching job, he’s been training and mentoring players for years in the city and suburbs. 

The name recognition among the parents of today’s players will resonate. Fields was an electric and must-see talent in the mid-1990s at Farragut, scoring more than 2,600 points in his career. Fields had a long professional career in the CBA and overseas. 

The fit could be ideal. Hope is already a highly-successful small school basketball program and now adds a coach with high upside to continue its recent success.

The Eagles have won 10 regional championships since 2010. Coach Antwon Johnson, who stepped down following last season, guided the program to sectional titles in 2017 and 2018, highlighted by a third-place finish in Class 1A in 2017. 

Best returning home story: Zion-Benton

A few years ago the Sun-Times named Rod Henry-Hayes to Zion-Benton’s All-Decade team after he starred for the Zee-Bees. As a senior in 2016-17, the 6-4 Henry-Hayes averaged 21 points a game. He signed with Northern Illinois and played three seasons for the Huskies.

Now, just six years since he graduated from Zion-Benton, he becomes one of the youngest head coaches in the state, taking over for veteran coach Bobby Worthington. 

Zion-Benton, a proud basketball program with a ton of success over the decades, has hit rock bottom. The Zee-Bees went 0-14 in North Suburban Conference play and finished 1-26 overall a year ago.

The good news is Henry-Hayes has five players with varsity experience. With a trio of juniors who started every game as sophomores, the first-year head coach has a two-year window to resurrect the program. The perimeter junior trio of Rmoni Beals, Kurtis Main and Amare Simpson form the backbone. But senior Azariah Kennard sets the tone with his non-stop motor. 

Most circuitous hire: Huntley

Newly hired Huntley coach Collin Kalamatas certainly has familiarity with Huntley and the basketball program. Kalamatas, who has taught at the school for 14 years and has been the Huntley golf coach for the past seven years, graduated from the school in 2005. He also coached under former coach Will Benson for two seasons. 

But that short stint under Benson came before he embarked on a girls basketball coaching career –– first at Woodstock for a season and then the past four years at Burlington Central. He led the girls program there to three straight regional championships. 

Huntley is a program that has won a whole lot of games over the past four years, including a pair of 27-win seasons and two regional championships. Kalamatas will build his first team around three returning starters. 

Other coaching changes of note


Previous coach: Ross Burt

New coach: Reggie Bates

The former Young assistant coach has strong AAU ties with Meanstreets. Now Bates gets his first crack as a head coach at a program that has regularly been mentioned as one with potential. 

But the magnet high school in the Old Town neighborhood, while having a quality player here and there over the years, has yet to establish itself in Public League basketball. 


Previous coach: Austin Scott

New coach: David Hess 

A star player for the Huskies in the late 1990s, Hess takes over the program on an interim basis for the 2023-24 season. 

Hess has been a longtime assistant coach at Hersey, Lane Tech and Stevenson, where he spent a good chunk of time working under highly-successful coach Pat Ambrose from 2009-2018.

He also brings head coaching experience with a stint at Tuscola, where he went 41-46 in three seasons while winning a regional championship, and one season at Elgin for one season. In four seasons as a head coach he’s compiled a 47-69 record. 

He spent last season as a varsity assistant coach under Austin Scott and has a returning point guard (Jared Ryg) and big man (6-7 junior Jackson Hupp). 


Previous coach: Brett Hespell

New coach: Dave Wilson 

Lockport has a proud basketball history. But the program hasn’t won a regional championship in 12 years. 

Andrew had little to no basketball history. Wilson won a regional championship, put together 18, 19 and 20-win seasons and is one of only two coaches in school history to put together five winning seasons. 


Previous coach: Dave Wilson

New coach: Justin Stirn

This has been a tricky basketball job for … well, forever. But Stirn has watched his former boss, Wilson, adapt and see how to maximize talent in the program. Stim has been a part of the Andrew staff for a dozen years and part of two conference championship and two regional title teams. 


Previous coach: Tony Young

New coach: David Fergerson

It’s been a little tumultuous for Fenwick basketball. 

A promising young team that won 21 games and a regional title last year was set to take the next step. But the progress appears to have been thwarted with the departure of its coach and several key players.

A former collegiate player at Saint Louis in the late 1990s, Fergerson takes the reins of the boys basketball program after spending time assisting Fenwick’s girls program, headed up by his wife, Lenae. Fergerson has also spent time as an assistant coach at Willowbrook. 


Previous coach: Will Benson

New coach: Collin Kalamatas

This is a program that has won a whole lot of games over the past four years, including a pair of 27-win seasons and two regional championships. That success catapulted former coach Will Benson to replace Pat Ambrose at Stevenson. Now it’s Kalamatas who will try to keep it rolling in a job that is considered one of the best, if not the best, basketball job in the Fox Valley Conference as the school and community continue to grow. 

Glenbard South

Previous coach: Wade Hardtke

New coach: Jason Mead

Mead stepped down as head coach at Waubonsie Valley following the 2020-21 season. In his four years there he put together a pair of 27-win seasons. He also led Dixon to a 25-win season in his three years there. 

After a two-year layoff, Mead has returned to coaching, taking over for Hardtke, who won three regional titles and the program’s second sectional championship in 2019.


Previous coach: Chris Madson

New coach: Raymond “Corky” Card

After six seasons leading the McHenry basketball program, Madson has taken over as athletic director at the school. He left a program with a solid up-and-coming young group of players. 

Card has plenty of familiarity with the Fox Valley Conference as he coached for 16 seasons at Prairie Ridge, winning six conference championships, five regional titles and a sectional championship. Card, who will welcome the majority of last year’s team back this season, has been at Dunlap since leaving Prairie Ridge in 2017. 

St. Charles East

Previous coach: Pat Woods

New coach: Rob Klemm

After 12 seasons as the head coach at St. Charles East, which included a regional championship last March and a run that ended in the sectional championship, Woods departed to take the Bolingbrook athletic director’s job this past summer. 

Now Klemm, who has been a part of the program for the past 18 years as an assistant, takes over. Klemm is a 2000 St. Charles grad and as a sophomore played for coach Ron Johnson during the legendary coach’s final season. 


Previous coach: Kevin Cain

New coach: Brett Hespell

Hespell landed the Minooka job after spending the past eight seasons heading up the Lockport program, where he finished with a record of 105-111. Hespell takes over a program that has one regional championship in the past 45 years.

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