By Tim Reusche | @TimReusche
Member of Ball State Sports Link
March 21st, 2015 – The day of the Class 4A IHSA State Championship Game. Normal Community High School versus Adlai E. Stevenson High School, the first time since the 2007-2008 State Finals matchup, in which no Chicago school was included in the title game.
The significance of this one, Stevenson had experienced their third trip in a row, to Peoria, the site for the IHSA State Championships since 1996.
Coming into the year, Stevenson was heavily favored and seen as the best team in all of Illinois. Getting back to state for a third consecutive trip however, wasn’t easy.
Stevenson played a national schedule in which they played various Prep Schools in Chaminade (St. Louis, MO), Gonzaga (Washington D.C.), and Findlay Prep (Henderson, NV). They went 1-2 against them but that one win spoke volumes to what head coach Pat Ambrose had going on in Lincolnshire.
Located in Lincolnshire, Illinois, Adlai E. Stevenson High School is approximately 40 minutes north of Chicago, anything far from being a “Chicago” school. Up north, the weather is usually cooler and the people are generally wealthier.
Lincolnshire is a part of the North Shore, a group of several towns in which the income is fairly higher than the surrounding areas outside of the North Shore. These North Shore towns are obviously associated with money and as a result, some of the top athletic teams in the State come from the North Shore.
However, at the end of the day, hard work beats talent. For schools like Stevenson and other North Shore schools, they usually excel in swimming, gymnastics, baseball, football, but there is always one sport in which the gritty and physical Chicago Schools surpass the North Shore schools in: basketball.
Jabari Parker, Anthony Davis, Jahlil Okafor, arguably the three biggest names to come out of Chicago since the emergence of Derrick Rose winning Rookie of the Year in the NBA. All three have excelled in high school and college. Yet, only two have won State Titles. Two of them also have played against Illinois’ 2015 Mr. Basketball.
For the first time ever in 2013, Adlai E. Stevenson was playing in the Boys Class 4A State Title Game. It was a game of the new against the old. Stevenson was on the rise with star sophomore Jalen Brunson alongside stud junior Matt Morrissey and the gritty sophomore Connor Cashaw. There were a few seniors on the team, but the focus was on Brunson.
As a sophomore, he ended up making First Team All-State, a feat that he would continue for three consecutive years. The “old” team they played against was three-time defending Class 4A State Champions, Simeon Career Academy. Once referred to as, “the best high school basketball player since LeBron James” (Sports Illustrated), Jabari Parker was a senior on that 2012-2013 Simeon team and was poised to complete an unheralded accomplishment: Win four consecutive State Titles.
To make a long story short, in which Brunson battled back and forth, dealt with various double teams, had every member on that Simeon Team guard him at one point, Stevenson ended up losing the title game by double digits.
Brunson ended up finishing the game with 14 points. Following that loss, I can still hear the Stevenson student section to my left, cheering and applauding the team for their phenomenal season. The following year, expectations were through the roof.
Since Stevenson returned virtually all of their key players, they were picked as a top-5 preseason team and once the state brackets came out, they were picked to go back to Peoria. Only losing one game in the regular season, Stevenson did not disappoint and returned to Peoria.
From facing one Chicago School to another, Whitney Young was their foe this time. Just when the Lincolnshire high school couldn’t get a break, they faced the likely Illinois Mr. Basketball 2014 winner in Jahlil Okafor. This game would go different for Jalen.
The young 6’2½ ” guard born and raised in New Jersey, was well mature beyond his years for being a junior. The game against Whitney Young meant the world for him. Already playing for the U18 USA National Team, Jalen Brunson was an accomplished young man. Back when he was a sophomore, he was playing up on the U17 Mac Irvin Fire AAU basketball team, a team that featured Jahlil Okafor, Cliff Alexander, and Jabari Parker. All of these accomplishments meant nothing to him, unless his team won the game.
He ended up setting a IHSA State Record in which he scored 56 points in a game against Whitney Young. The final score read 75-68, in favor of Whitney Young. It was another game in which Brunson faced various double teams and matchups but this time was able to get shots off.
The majority of them went in, but not enough. This North Shore School in Lincolnshire, was making noise. Jalen Brunson defied what it meant to be a North Shore basketball player. He was outworking everyone in the state, including those in Chicago. The following year, his senior year, expectations rose even more.
As mentioned before, Stevenson had a national schedule and faired alright, winning one of three games. Stevenson was ranked as the number one team in the state of Illinois from the beginning of the season until, February 21st. They experienced their first In-State regular season loss since January of the year before. The loss came to none other than Simeon.
Simeon did not have a unanimous Mr. Basketball on that team but featured a handful of Division One basketball players. If losing a game hurt anyone more than Jalen Brunson, I have yet to see it. Once the final buzzer rang, a distraught Brunson walked off with his team, to the locker room. Following the loss, he made a promise to never let Patriot Nation, the Stevenson faithful, down again.
Back to March 21st, 2015, the day of the Class 4A State Championship. A Normal Community team that has only one loss on the year plays a Stevenson team that has three losses, two out-of-state, and one in-state.
Just the day before, Jalen missed his first ten shots from the field but still was able to blow a quality Bolingbrook High School team out of the water. The senior Jalen Brunson was ready to take over the State. His scoring numbers were down on the year compared to the season before, but he averaged more assists.
The early struggle in the State Semifinal Game was nothing for Brunson in comparison to what he faced and saw over the year. The accomplishments go on and on for the New Jersey born guard, but, only one award matters to him: winning.
The State Title Game was back and forth for the first half. When Stevenson took the lead, Normal Community answered. When Normal went on a run, so did Stevenson. What made Stevenson really succeed in the title game was the veteran leadership.
When looking back at that team, Jalen Brunson and Connor Cashaw stand out, but two other seniors had a huge impact as well, in Parker Nichols and Matt Johnson. Four seniors all poised to win that elusive State Title. Brunson was the leader and through his leadership he was able to help make a damn good basketball team in the 2014-2015 Adlai E. Stevenson Patriots.
The seniors helped start a run in the second half that propelled Stevenson to their first ever basketball state title in program history. With less than four minutes left in the game, Coach Ambrose sat his starters and brought in his bench.
The only thing left for the Patriots was for the clock to run out. Once the clock hit triple zeroes the entire bench for Stevenson stormed the court. Everyone was elated jumping up and down, there was one thing that was missing: Jalen Brunson.
As every celebrated, Jalen ran off to the stands to hug his mom and dad (see here).
The two people in his life that understand everything that has happened to him, through the thick and thin. The grind they see, when he gets up for the early morning workouts, when he sacrifices a social life to work on his craft. A culmination if you will, of everything he experienced in life up until that point is represented in those two hugs.
Jalen Brunson is now in the midst of his freshman season at Villanova. He was voted as the Big East Preseason Rookie of the Year and as a Preseason All-Big East Honorable Mention (via SB NATION )
Through 9 games he is averaging 10.8 points per game, 1.9 rebounds per game, 3.4 assists per game, and is shooting 82% from the free throw line. He is not putting up eye-popping numbers but is making noise. There is some buzz around the star freshman.
He made Ryan Acridiacono, a preseason favorite for Big East Player of the Year, move over to shooting guard. If that does not speak volumes as to the player that is Jalen Brunson, I don’t know what does.
McDonad’s All American, two-time Gatorade Player of the Year for Illinois, FIBA U19 MVP, and Illinois’ Mr. Basketball 2015, just a few of the many awards the New Jersey-born teenager has won. All individual awards, all that mean nothing to him, unless his team won.
As Jalen Brunson continues his career at Villanova, there will be much fanfare associated with it. Each year he keeps improving as a player, the awards prove it. However, at the end of his (hopefully) four-year-career I can guarantee you, other than earning a degree, he wants to hold that National Championship Trophy in early April.
You can view Stevenson’s historic run here