Area’s most impactful freshmen in the winter sports, courtesy executive sports editor Fred Kroner
There are three who have stood out for their contributions thus far to varsity teams. Start with St. Thomas More’s Douglas Wallen, a 6-foot-4 forward. “He has a good low-post game but is capable of stepping outside to knock down a shot and can also put the ball on the floor and get to the rim,” STM coach Matt Kelley said. “His biggest improvements have come on the defensive end, where he has started to impact games. He’s a good shot-blocker and rebounder. He has done a great job adjusting to how much more physical and quicker the game is at this level. With his work ethic and desire to learn and get better, he has all the capabilities of being an impact player in the area throughout his high school career.” Wallen is averaging a team-high 16.1 points per game and has a 5.2 rebounding average. The Sabers have perhaps the best freshman duo. Clavin Davis is “very quick with a great shot. They will be a great combination for us the next few years,” Kelley said.
Not to be overlooked is Rantoul’s Kevonte Williams, who is one of three double-figure scorers for the Eagles. He has an 11.2 scoring average to go with a team-high 9.0 rebounding average. “We knew from the beginning of the summer that Kevonte was going to be a contributor. We just didn’t know he was going to impact our team the way he has,” Rantoul coach A.J. Richard said. “The biggest thing that has allowed him to step in so quickly is his work ethic. He comes to practice every day ready to go to work. You hear a lot of coaches talk about having kids that have motors that don’t ever stop, and I think Kevonte is one of those kids. He never stops working. The sky is the limit for Kevonte. I think that if he gives us a couple of summers of extremely hard work and dedication to his overall game and to the weight-room, he will be a load for the competition to deal with when he’s a junior and senior.”
Iroquois West’s Grace Schroeder has stepped in as the leading scorer on a 17-2 team that has been ranked as high as second in the state in Class 1A. The 5-7 Schroeder is averaging 11.1 points and 3.1 assists per game. “Our team was faced with some pretty major injuries to key players, so Grace was thrown into the action very early on whether she was ready or not,” Raiders coach Kristy Arie said. “What has allowed her to get big numbers in the scoring column is her ability to shoot the long-range shot and her strong finishes to the basket. She has really developed a nice baseline drive, and she attacks the basket hard. The other key to Grace’s success and her style of play is that she plays fearless. She isn’t a kid that gets nervous or overthinks things. She just goes out there every night and plays hard because she loves the game.”
Danville’s Megan Burton is a 5-3 guard who has drilled 43 three-pointers. “She is playing for us because she is our best shooter,” coach Brian Anderson said. “She had six threes against Lincoln. She is extremely hard on herself, so Coach (Megan) Gleason and I try to be real positive with her. Moving forward, she is going to be a good player for us.” The Vikings have a second ninth-grader in the starting lineup, Jill Cooper-Watson. She is averaging about six points and seven rebounds per game. “Jill has a knack for getting to the glass and finishing around the rim,” Anderson said.
Central’s Cam Barnard has the area’s best time in the 100-yard butterfly. Teammate Devon Bell is listed among the area’s top 10 in five events, including the 500 freestyle, in which he is third. They are both members of the Stephens YMCA Heat Swim team. “Cam was reluctant years ago to even go to practice,” Central co-coach Will Barker said. “Once he got the hang of it, he started to really work harder, and it has been showing. Devon has been motivated for a while. His older brother, Brandon, has been a motivator, and he has been around the high school team for a while before finally becoming a freshman this year. He jumped right into the routine and has been improving a lot.” Brandon Bell, the area leader in the 500 freestyle, is a junior this season for the Maroons. “I expected both (Barnard and Devon Bell) to have an impact on our team, though maybe not quite so strong so soon,” Central co-coach Tommy Lockman said. “With continued focus and hard work, I am confident they will be valuable assets in building on our program’s strong tradition. Cam has raw talent and continues to build his base every day. When he gets into it, he is a solid competitor, especially on the relays. Devon is very versatile and a contender in a number of different events. He has grown a lot this season in his approach to practice and his attention to detail.”
It’s not unusual to see freshmen dominate early in their prep careers in the lower weight classes. What makes Mahomet-Seymour’s Hunter Crowley unique is that he is faring well in the upper weights in which he seldom goes against anyone his age. Crowley is 17-12 at 182 pounds after starting the season at 195. “He grits out tough matches and makes all his opponents work hard to beat him,” M-S coach Rob Ledin said. “He will be a force to be reckoned with once he becomes more aggressive on his feet. As long as he continues to improve this season and in the offseason, he will be a multiple state qualifier, and my opinion is that he will be on the podium in the State Farm Center before it’s all said and done. Hunter was an Illinois Kids Wrestling Federation state champion last year, so we knew he had the potential to make an impact.”