URBANA — Conner Gremer’s pregame routine includes more than shooting layups and throwing warmup passes to his Urbana basketball teammates.
Before he leaves the Tigers’ locker room, he drops to a knee for a moment of prayer.
Before the referee tosses the ball for the opening tip, Gremer touches his shoes.
It’s a reminder about something he’s not apt to forget anyway, a promise he made to his grandfather, John Gremer, in 2011, shortly before he passed away.
“He said, ‘When I pass, work hard and play hard for me,’” Conner Gremer recalled. “He said, ‘Give it your all, whether you succeed or don’t succeed.’ ”
Whether it’s football, basketball or his favorite sport — baseball — Conner Gremer’s shoes are inscribed “RIP JG.”
He took the message to heart.
“He gets after it,” Urbana boys’ basketball coach Vashoune Russell said. “He comes from a family with a lot of Tiger pride, and that’s how he’s playing his senior year.”
The 6-foot-4 Gremer ranks among the best of the area’s most improved seniors. A year ago, he moved into the starting lineup before Christmas and averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. Entering Friday’s home game against Normal Community, Conner Gremer is averaging 16.5 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. In his last three games, his rebound totals were 17, 19 and 16.
“Even on nights when I don’t score, I can throw my lower body and hips into people, move them and get rebounds,” Gremer said.
“I’ve always said I’d take a team of Conner Gremers,” Russell said. “He’ll execute and work hard. He’s a kid who’s a worker and is going to be one of those kids I’m going to miss. He learned as a sophomore how to get into the game. Coach (Tom) Brown said, ‘We need somebody to rebound.’ ”
As a junior, Gremer bypassed football. This school year, he played football and felt more prepared coming into the basketball season.
“I lifted and conditioned, and this year came in 10 pounds lighter,” he said. “It’s all come together, but I didn’t know I’d do this.”
Russell finds it hard to even get him out of the game.
“He’s probably playing about 31 minutes a game,” Russell said. “He has been a pleasant surprise.”
Gremer’s other grandfather, Tom Babb, played a role in his significant improvement.
“During the summer, we’d talk about how things are going on the farm, and stuff,” Conner Gremer said. “Then we’d always get into sports and how I can become a better athlete.”
Babb purchased weighted jump ropes for his grandson.
“I did that and jumping jacks almost every day in the summer,” Parkland College baseball recruit Conner Gremer said. “He pushes me just as hard as my coaches, my dad, my mom, my grandmas and the grandpa I had before he passed two years ago. I will always play every game for JG and my family.”
The choice of Centennial’s Jasmine Kyler as the most improved area senior girl is somewhat deceiving. It’s not a reflection about how she played a year ago.
“She was behind a good group of forwards and centers,” Chargers coach Jessi Beachey said. “She didn’t get as much playing time.”
In limited varsity duty as a junior, Kyler averaged 5.9 points per game. This season, for a 16-6 team, the 6-3 Kyler has raised her average to 13.8 points per game.
“She has improved a lot, but her role is completely different,” Beachey said. “She is one of two girls who averaged more than five to 10 minutes (of playing time) per game. She’s an offensive threat with an excellent shooting percentage, and she has range you don’t find often with a post. She keeps on improving.”
Kyler’s value goes beyond the numerical contributions.
“She is a very confident leader, which is helpful when you have a group of girls needing a leader,” Beachey said. “She has been a great captain. I was hoping she’d be the player I’ve seen.”
Kyler has scored in double figures in 19 of 21 games.