Alumna back coaching sport she loves

Former player Erin Navolio now leading varsity girls basketball at Central

Erin Navolio is in her first year as head coach of Hinsdale Central High School's varsity girls basketball team, but her history with the program goes back many years - all the way to her childhood.

"I had been attending their little kids summer camp since I was in third grade," she said. "My father and I would got to a lot of their games throughout the season. My dream was to be on the Hinsdale Central basketball team."

Her dream came true in 2006 when she earned a spot on the sophomore team as a freshman. She was called up to varsity in the middle of her sophomore year. She has fond memories of coach Steve Gross and her time on the squad.

"He was amazing," she said of Gross. "I had the best teams, the best friendships that came out of it. It was a big highlight of my high school experience.

"I knew as soon as I left high school I wanted to be back coaching."

Gross said Navolio, who at one point played point guard, would often get knocked to the ground, causing the coaches to cringe.

"She would just get up and keep on going. She was a great competitor and a super tough player," he said.

Navolio went on to play at Knox College in Galesburg, where she earned a degree in elementary education.

"I knew I wanted to be a teacher early on. I loved elementary," she said.

Although many of her fellow coaches teach at Central, she said it's easy for her to transition from her day job teaching first grade at St. Francis Xavier in La Grange to coaching.

"You finish your school day and hop right into it," she said. "I get to work with different age groups through the day."

Navolio was teaching at St. Angela School in Chicago in 2012 when she was offered the opportunity to be the assistant girls varsity coach under Tom McKenna. She jumped at the chance.

"And I've kind of been there ever since," she said.

In addition to serving as assistant coach, she also was head coach of the sophomore team for two years. Leading the varsity team, she's discovered, is a much bigger responsibility.

"It's been a lot," she acknowledged, quickly adding that the experience has been great.

"I have a really good group of girls. I have a very supportive group of parents," she said. "I have two seniors this year. We're incredibly young, but we have been learning a lot from each other. They're very coachable. They work very hard. It's been a good experience."

She credited Hinsdale Central athletic director Dan Jones with helping her through the transition. He said she's been doing a great job.

"Even for a young head coach, she has been paying attention to the details and is very organized," Jones said. "I think her greatest strength is her preparation for both games and practices. She has really got the girls focused and she's got them competing together as a team."

As part of the West Suburban Conference, the Red Devils play some of the toughest teams in the state. Her young team has struggled in some of those contests, and at one point had eight losses in a row in December and early January. Navolio was not discouraged.

"With those losses there was improvement," she said. "The scores maybe didn't reflect it.

"Our confidence grew and we started to play with each other," she added. "I told the girls it was going to be a tough season and as long as I see improvement with each game, that's all I can ask for."

Gross said Navolio's understanding that building the program is more important than individual games will serve her well.

"To me - and I think Erin understands this - the key to having a good high school program is to have a program where the freshmen through the upperclassmen all understand the expectation of how hard they have to work, how they have to play together, that basketball is a team sport," he said.

Navolio said her goal is to create the type of program her former coach ran.

"He had such success in the '90s and 2000s and I love his defensive strategy and his intensity, so I try to bring that back to the program," she said.

Navolio brought those high expectations to the program even as an assistant coach, said former Red Devil Nina Sarros, who graduated in 2022.

"Sometimes that was daunting, but it also put us in a position to reach our full potential, because she did expect so much from us, and it showed us we were capable of it," said Sarros, who played her freshman year on the sophomore team and three years on varsity. "I feel like I would not have reached my full potential if I had not had her as my coach."

Navolio's goal off the court is to help create women who are prepared to meet the challenges they will face as adults by teaching them self-advocacy, respect, discipline, accountability and perseverance.

"I want to be able to teach them not only basketball skills but skills for life. They're only with me about four months out of the year," she said.

Sarros said Navolio's experience as a player and longtime coach helped reinforce the lessons she tried to pass on to the team, Sarros said.

"She taught us a bunch of things and it was easy to know she was credible because she had done it herself," said Sarros, now a freshman at the University of Kentucky.

Looking five or 10 years down the road, Navolio hopes to still be coaching at her alma mater.

"I know the program was very competitive when I was growing up and I know we've lost that in the last few years," she said. "I want to have a competitive program in the conference and in the state."

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean