EVANSTON, Ill. – After losing in the state tournament two years in a row, Evanston Township High School was two wins away from going back to Peoria last March, when their season came to a sudden stop.
“I was disappointed, but it was actually the first year I didn’t cry at the season ending because I knew it wasn’t something we could control,” said senior guard Blake Peters.
The Wildkits are grateful to play at all this season, even with no state series scheduled. But thanks to former Fenwick and New Trier head coach Rick Malnati, they have some added incentive.
“Rick had some communication with me. He reached out. Talked about his idea of having the players play for something this year, not just play games,” explained head coach Mike Ellis. “I thought it was a great idea. I was on board from the start, endorsing that thought.”
Malnati organized an end-of-season tournament March 12th and 13th for eight of the area’s best teams: Evanston, DePaul Prep, Fenwick, Mundelein, Notre Dame, Simeon, St. Patrick, and Whitney Young.
“Kids love playing for conference championships, but this is a little bit more,” noted Malnati. “This is going to represent pretty much a classic final eight teams in state, or an old Proviso tournament or a Pontiac tournament.”
Evanston chose to put its own spin on the invite. Instead of accepting the offer, head coach Mike Ellis decided the winner of their Central Suburban Conference would earn the tournament berth.
“We could’ve easily said ‘yes, we’re playing.’ But I felt for the integrity of the tournament, the event for the integrity of our conference, our program – to me it just made sense for all that to be earned,” Ellis remarked. “Nothing was just going to be handed to us. The IHSA doesn’t hand you a trip to the state finals. You have to earn those throughout achievements and victories.”
“We were very excited because we always try to play the best competition.” added Peters. “We saw that Simeon, Whitney Young, all those other teams were in it. We play best under the bright lights. Hopefully, if we continue to play well, we’ll be in that situation.”
The finals will be broadcast on ESPN3 and Malnati spiced things up by getting Chipotle to sponsor the event and splurge on a trophy. Maybe even one shaped like a burrito?
“Maybe. We’ve never seen an edible trophy before.”
Taking down an impromptu tournament may not taste as sweet as a state title, but it could be the cherry on top or in this case, sour cream and guac of a most unusual season.
“It kind of extended a prize that we are reaching for. Not only are we playing to try to win our league, but in doing so we’d also being facing an additional challenge in trying to win this mythical state tournament that Rick’s put together.”