Originally posted at: myjournalcourier
The members of last winter’s 23-1 Turner eighth-grade boys’ basketball team are no longer at Turner, and are no longer in eighth grade.
But they are still hooping.
Thanks to the efforts of a man named Justin Mallett, boys in and around Jacksonville between the ages of 13 and 14 now have the opportunity to get a head start on high school basketball through a local AAU club. Mallett’s inaugural team from Jacksonville just happens to be comprised of seven players from the recent Turner Titan teams that went 44-2 in their seventh- and eighth-grade seasons.
Mallett’s 14-and-under squad (14U) is the only AAU boys’ basketball club in the Jacksonville area. “There’s a couple of teams in Springfield and in the Peoria area,” said Mallett Tuesday evening after
concluding a team practice at Illinois College’s stuffy old Memorial Gymnasium. “And it’s definitely big in the Chicago area, but in this area (AAU) just hasn’t been around.”
Mallett came to Jacksonville from Wisconsin last year after being named the director of diversity at Illinois College. Mallett coached an AAU squad called the Wisconsin Blaze for 10 years before
moving to Central Illinois. He said he became interested in forming the Jacksonville 14U team after reading about the successful Turner Titan teams in the newspaper. “I followed them a little bit in the newspaper,” Mallett said. “Once I saw that they were a game out from going to state, I placed a call to see if there would be any interest in forming an AAU team for the summer. And there was some interest. We had seven players from that Turner team who were very interested in playing.”
Forward Brady Hays was the only member of the Turner Eighth already committed to playing AAU ball this summer with a club in Springfield. When he learned of the opportunity to play on a squad with
his local friends and teammates, he joined Mallett’s team as well.
Hays said he now spends six days a week playing or practicing basketball between the two teams he’s on, but he wouldn’t have it differently. “Just to be able to play with these (Turner) guys again, I was so excited,” said Hays. “These are my best friends.”
Point guard Klay Wood was already involved in football and baseball this summer, as well as participating in JHS junior varsity basketball camps, but he decided to make time for the AAU team “I’ve had to work around a lot of schedules with baseball and football, just to come out here and work on what I can,” said Wood, who went straight from Tuesday’s AAU practice to a football workout. “It’s
rough, but at least there’s always something to do. There’s no sitting around.”
Other members of the AAU squad include incoming freshmen Brandon McCombs, Adam Hillis, James White, Garrett Scaman and Steven Albers. The team has competed in two tournaments so far,
taking first place with a 3-0 showing at an event in St. Louis, then placing fourth at an AAU National qualifier tournament in Chicago.
Hays said the tournament in St. Louis was the team’s first actual competition together since the 44-38 loss to Springfield Jefferson on January 30 that ended their remarkable eighth-grade season. It was
kind of like getting back onto a bicycle after four months.
“That first tournament in St. Louis, we just had fun with it and we really played well,” said Hays. “With us already having that bond, unlike most teams, we were able to just pick it back up and have fun with
The Jacksonville squad blew out its first two opponents in St. Louis, then won the championship game by one point. The team then went 2-2 in Chicago. “Their main strength is their chemistry,” Mallett said of the boys. “They’ve been playing together forever. They know each other.”
The members of the team have been playing basketball together since first grade, and have all been friends for just as long, which helps them to operate smoothly against other AAU squads loaded with
talent, but lacking the Jacksonville squad’s cohesion.
“All the guys get along and hang out with each other even outside of basketball,” said Wood. “We’re all hard workers and we’re all dedicated to basketball.”
Mallett said he plans for the team to play in two more AAU tournaments before the summer is over. At the end of this month, the boys will be in St. Louis for what Mallett calls a “warm up” tournament,
and then will travel to Indianapolis in July for the annual Hoosier Shootout, a primo event where a lot of incoming high school freshmen first get noticed by NCAA recruiting scouts. “July is the NCAA evaluation period,” Mallett said. “That’s the period of time when all the NCAA coaches can come out and watch kids play. This is where the kids will begin making the building blocks toward their high school-to-college recruitment.”
Because of the scouting aspects of AAU ball, Mallett has his team playing man-to-man defense instead of the more zone-oriented schemes the boys are likely to play at Jacksonville High as they
progress to varsity. He’s also teaching them the fundamentals of a motion offense. “They’re very coachable,” Mallett said of the boys. “They know what to do. They take directions very well and, most importantly, they want to win. And that’s one of their biggest strengths, right there.
They really, really want to win.”
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