Eric Vierneisel remembers the long trips to Chicago.
The former basketball star at Jacobs would drive almost two hours when he was in high school to play and practice with the Illinois Warriors, an AAU team based out of Tinley Park. He honed his skills against quality competition and developed into a college prospect through what was one of the preeminent travel programs in the country.
“I had to go down to the city to play for this team,“ said Vierneisel, who went on to play college basketball at California from 2004 to ’08. “There were some of the best players in the state playing for this team, but it was kind of a long haul.”
Now Vierneisel is part of the Illinois Magic’s new management team that is trying to bring that same sort of program to McHenry County.
Eric Samuelson, an assistant coach at Chicago St. Patrick, bought the program from Marty Dello, the founder of the Magic. His goal is to redefine the Magic as an organization that will attract the area’s best basketball players.
“We’re trying to revamp the program and get new, fresh faces in there, younger people, new coaches who want to be there and want to coach,” Samuelson said. “We want to give players a great place to play basketball.”
Samuelson has basketball roots in the Chicago area, playing his high school ball at Maine West and continuing his career with four years at North Park University.
Although he has no direct coaching experience in McHenry County, he’s tapped two of the area’s former prep stars to head his boys and girls programs. Vierneisel will be the director of boys basketball, while former Woodstock star and current Alden-Hebron coach Jen Nichols will continue serving as the director of girls basketball. Nichols has coached with the Magic since 2009.
Samuelson said he plans for the Magic to be based out of Crystal Lake, drawing kids from all over the county. He hopes that Nichols’ and Vierneisel’s local ties will help recruit more players to a program that hasn’t always attracted local stars.
“There are a lot of towns and resources that don’t even know the Magic,” Nichols said. “There’s a lot of resources that haven’t been tapped into.”
In addition to sponsoring AAU travel teams, Samuelson wants the Magic to serve primarily as a developmental training program that takes advantage of his coaching staff’s college-level experience.
He’s hired Mark Sommerville, a former basketball teammate of Vierneisel at Jacobs, to be the separate speed and agility coach. Sommerville played basketball at Augustana College and now is a trainer at Going Vertical in Huntley.
“We want coaches who are high-school qualified coaches,” Samuelson said. “A lot of people had negative things to say about the Magic in the past because of lack of coaching and lack of organization.”
With that in mind, Samuelson re-did the company’s logo and website in an attempt to show the change taking place, and Vierneisel has started his pitch to local high school coaches. They will put on a series of free basketball clinics once school starts, all in the hopes of creating the same sort of program that helped Vierneisel to become a successful college career.
“There are a lot of kids that play basketball, and some of them want to be really good,“ Vierneisel said. “With the new direction that we have in mind, it gives them a place that’s local that can offer that.”