Undefeated SIJ earns championship

Eighth-grade boys basketball team ends season with 46-0 record and three-peat

Ending the season as the undefeated champs is pretty impressive for any basketball team. Ending a three-year middle school season that way - as did the boys basketball team at St. Isaac Jogues School in Hinsdale - is a remarkable accomplishment.

Players and their head coach credit the run to one thing: team chemistry.

Ryan Williams of Hinsdale said he's been playing with teammates Will Barclay and Justin Kurkowski in Hinsdale Inferno basketball since elementary school.

"Since third grade, we're always like, 'I can't wait to play basketball at St. Isaac Jogues,' " he said. "When the team came together, it was just like we were ready. We had the chemistry already. We were really good friends. It was a perfect way to start sixth grade."

Many team members also have the advantage of having been classmates since kindergarten, Will said.

"We're in school together for nine years now, and we know each other really well. We know each other's strengths and weaknesses and we also trust each other. Also our coaches are really good," he said.

The team is coached by assistant Mark Williams and head coach Mike Kurkowski, Justin's dad.

"I liked having him as a coach," Justin said. "I feel like he put in a lot of effort and energy into coaching our team."

His dad said the players made his job easy.

"I would go into some games and say, 'I don't want to do a lot of coaching tonight guys,' and they would take care of the rest," he said.

St. Isaac Jogues athletic director Julie Potts believes the coaches' decision to let the boys work together as a team contributed to their success.

"As the AD, I'm at all the home games and I watch," Potts said. "I watch some coaches that are passionate, and through their passion feel they need to be coaching even when the kids are on the court. That is not Mike and Mark.

"I think that is one of the reasons these boys have played so well together," she continued. "They've had to play. They have to figure it out. It's fun to watch. It's a unique experience."

Kurkowski said there was something special about this group of players that made that possible.

"It just seemed very organic with them and they played really well," he said. "You can't recreate it. It's those kids playing together and the way they interact with each other on and off the court is different."

He credited Ryan, Will and Justin for setting the tone for the team.

"Those three kids were very good leaders, very unselfish, and I think that rubs off on the whole team. They all play so well together and so unselfish," he said.

Those relationships create a more relaxed environment on the court.

"You know you can trust them," Ryan said. "I don't have to be the best scorer or the best player. I can trust my teammates.

"Some of the teams we played, there was one guy trying to do it all. On our team, we had a job to do and we tried to do it well. And if somebody was having a bad game, we would all step up."

Potts noted that as well.

"This team certainly has some boys who are very gifted, but when you watch them play, it's not easy to see who would be the standout because they play so well together," she said.

The boys were so in tune with each other that sometimes Potts couldn't tell if a player knew he was about to receive a pass.

"Some of the passes, they make your heart kind of skip a beat," she said.

Kurkowski said the team's growing winning streak didn't change his coaching over his three years of working with the team.

"The last practice we do at the end of the year, I tell them we are going to go back to the things we did at the first practice of the season," he said.

Focusing on the basics helped keep the team from thinking too much about the playoffs or what was at stake.

"Keep it simple and keep it basic and let them do the rest and take over," he said.

After beating Notre Dame 48-32 in the first playoff game of the Suburban Parochial League, SIJ went into the final game against Visitation with a 45-game winning streak. They won easily with a score of 54-31. The team established an early 20-7 lead, Ryan said, creating some great energy.

"Our fans came, so that was fun. We were all having a good time," he said.

"There's so much school spirit at St. Isaac Jogues," Will said. "Lots of our classmates and our teachers and even our priest, Father Burke (Masters), came to support us in our final game. That motivated us."

Watching the team win its third championship was exciting - and instructive - for Kurkowski.

"That's when you could really tell the pressure was building too much with them. They are a pretty calm, cool, collected group. When they won that third one you could tell they were very relieved, happy," he said.

"That's one of the best feelings I've had in my basketball career, to win with all my friends from school," Ryan said. "It felt really good."

The victory was bittersweet, as it marked the last time the boys will be on the same school team. The three are all moving on to different high schools next year, with Justin attending Hinsdale Central, Ryan heading to Benet and Will enrolling at St. Ignatius. All three plan to continue playing in high school and acknowledge there will be an adjustment.

"It will probably be something that's hard," Justin said.

"We're a family and I'm really going to miss this team," Will said.

Ryan said no team will ever be the same.

"Obviously I'm going to make more friends at Benet, but there was something special about playing with Will and Justin since third grade all the way up to now," he said. "I'll have to adjust. It will be different, definitely."

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean