Few coaches in any sport have the chance to start and mold a program from the ground up.
Woodstock North girls basketball coach Mike Lewis’ unexpected opportunity came five years ago when the new school opened, and only four years after the Thunder’s first varsity season, they’re contending for a division title.
“He’s always pushing everybody to be the best that they can be and he doesn’t give up on anyone,” senior Sami Ahr said of Lewis. “If he sees one of us struggling, he’ll pull us aside to help figure out what’s going on.”
Three seniors – Emma Everly, Kaitlin Chamberlain and Aleecia Braun – have been with Lewis since their freshman year, which also was Woodstock North’s first as a varsity team. The Thunder, at 4-2 in the Fox Valley Conference Fox Division, are chasing Grayslake North for the program’s first division title.
As eighth-graders at Northwood Middle School, the now Woodstock North seniors were part one of the most talented teams in the area. And as their time as teammates dwindles, the Thunder recognize how far the program has come.
“Having these kids for four years, it almost seems like a college program,” Lewis said. “It’s like a dream to have a kid for four years and work with them every day. … They have no problem leading us in the right direction. It’s awesome how far they’ve brought us.”
From outside of the Woodstock North community, Lewis’ hiring as the Thunder varsity coach could have been considered unexpected. Lewis, then a recent college graduate, had spent only one year at Woodstock coaching the girls freshman B team. Before that, he only coached boys, but the Woodstock North administration believed Lewis was the right man for the job. He’s yet to prove them wrong.
“I personally bought into what he was teaching us right away,” Braun said of Lewis. “He was passionate about where he wanted this program to go. The way he would explain things – his passion toward it – it won me over.”
The 2008-09 season afforded Lewis a year of working with the freshmen and sophomores because the school only had freshman and sophomore teams, easing the transition to a varsity squad the next year.
“Lucky for me, I got the opportunity to be the coach of this school,” Lewis said. “These girls work so hard and that’s what I asked them to do from Day 1, just to work as hard as they possibly can at getting better and playing hard no matter what the score is or how much time is left on the clock.”
The Thunder’s journey to respectability and into a legitimate contender for the FVC Fox title this year featured more downs than ups during the program’s first two varsity seasons. Woodstock North won four combined FVC Fox games in that span and posted a 21-35 overall record.
“It was pretty tough because we were young and still developing,” Everly said. “But we knew that we’d get it together and the next couple of years would get better. We just had to get through it and stay positive and keep going hard.”
Lewis gave all the credit to his players for sticking through tough losses without getting disheartened and working hard in the offseason. Those experiences certainly tested four-year varsity players Everly, Chamberlain and Braun, who have provided a core for this season’s squad, which features nine seniors.
“It’s a lot of hard work coming from nothing,” Chamberlain said. “Having no seniors that first year was difficult, and that was a big challenge.”
Lewis and the Thunder aren’t satisfied with being a contender this year, and the next challenge is sustaining Woodstock North’s success. Some of that foundation already has been set. Braun said the Thunder often attend the freshman games to show support and quite a few players have younger sisters in the program, including Everly and Sami Ahr, whose sister Haley plays on varsity as a freshman.
“We’re going to have to play a lot of games [in the offseason] and get experience, get these kids playing together so that way they can learn each other’s strengths and help each other grow,” Lewis said. “That way when we start the season next year we’re rocking.”