Two of the most successful football coaches in Evanston’s history are among the 6 individuals and 2 teams selected to the Evanston Athletic Hall of Fame Class of 2018 by a committee of coaches, administrators and community members.
John Riehle, who led the Wildkits to their best postseason finishes since the Illinois High School Association began a state playoff system, and Cecil “Pop” Vance, who guided ETHS to three mythical state titles in the pre-playoff days, head a class that also includes Tom Alderson (boys swimming), Homer Fleetwood (baseball/basketball), Juvon McGarry (boys basketball), and Gabrielle Mead (girls track).
Also selected were the 1963 state champion boys gymnastics team, and the 1997 football team that reached the state quarterfinals.
The most recent inductees will be honored on Saturday at a noon luncheon at the high school.
TOM ALDERSON, BOYS SWIMMING, CLASS OF 1955
Tom Alderson started high school at a place where there was no school-sponsored swim team.
But it didn’t take Alderson long to make a splash when he transferred to a place where there was a dynasty in the making.
Alderson was a major contributor to the Evanston swim teams that collected three straight Illinois High School Association state team titles under Hall of Fame coach Dobbie Burton, winning three gold medals and a silver in his 3-year ETHS career.
Only two other Wildkit male swimmers — fellow Hall of Famers Dick Hanley and Mike Farmer — have been part of three state championship squads.
Not bad for someone who began his high school career at Chicago Latin and only participated in swimming on his own at first.
“I was 14 or 15 years old when I first started swimming, and I just entered some swim meets on my own,” Alderson recalled. “I cracked my vertebrae playing football when I was a 7th grader and that’s when I made my own choice to stop playing.
“So I was fairly new to swimming when I came to Evanston. I didn’t know any of the other guys before I got there, but we were very unified as a team before too long. Coach Burton was like a father to all of us, and it was an honor for me to be a part of such a great team.
“It was always very satisfying to beat New Trier, and the State meet was always the biggest meet of the year. When I was a junior, we had the best team in the country, and we were so good we spent most of the season going for records like the 3-mile relay. And we got them.”
Alderson was the first to win a state title as a high school sophomore, winning the 100-yard freestyle even in 54.7 seconds. He also earned a gold medal in the 200-freestyle relay, combining with Hanley, Deed Hardin and Leddie Lederer to win in 1:39.2.
As a junior, Alderson settled for 2nd in the 100 freestyle behind New Trier rival Don Patterson. He finished his senior season on a triumphant note, ruling the State 200 freestyle in 2:02.4 and also placing 5th in the 150 individual medley event.
That proved to be the high water mark of his swim career. He was recruited by Northwestern University but never made much of an impact in the pool there. He eventually majored in pre-med and became a physician, enjoying a 30-year career before retiring.
“As a state champion coming in they had high hopes for me at Northwestern,” Alderson recalled. “But I caught mono (mononucleosis) at the beginning of the season and I was in the hospital for almost a month. I never really came back from that.
“Having to leave swimming like that was kind of a downer at first. But life goes on, and you find other things. I found it in my academics.”
HOMER FLEETWOOD, BASEBALL/BASKETBALL, CLASS OF 1922
Twenty-five years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier for Major League Baseball, Evanston’s Homer Fleetwood was making inroads as a local pioneer for black athletes.
An accomplished baseball and basketball player at ETHS, Fleetwood’s contributions to the Evanston community went beyond the diamond and the court. He served as a role model for generations of both blacks and whites to look up to and blazed a trail at a time when racial prejudice was still a major hurdle for minorities to overcome.
Fleetwood, a member of the Class of 1922, played at a time when there was still a separate hospital in Evanston for blacks. He shares the honor of having the Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center in Evanston named after him and Edwin B. Jourdain Jr., Evanston’s first black alderman. That center is described as “a living memorial to Black achievement in Evanston.”
Fleetwood holds the distinction as the first black to play varsity basketball and baseball at ETHS. He was the first black athlete named as a captain for a varsity team, earning that honor for the 1922 baseball squad. He played catcher for the Wildkit baseball team and was also the second leading scorer for the basketball team as a senior, and was voted second-team all-Suburban League by the basketball coaches.
After attending the University of Illinois, he transferred back to Northwestern University and was the first black player to suit up for the basketball program there.
“No single person ever made more of a contribution to Evanston High School athletics than Fleet,” wrote Dan Peterson, a Hall of Fame inductee in 2013, in a letter of nomination on Fleetwood’s behalf. “He was the Godfather of Sports at Foster Elementary School, Foster Junior High School, the Foster Street YMCA and the Foster playground. He was a friend, big brother and advisor to countless athletes in the 5th Ward. He pushed them to make their grades, go to college and give something back to the community.”
“He was extraordinarily proud of the fact that he was the first black to be a captain, but he didn’t have any false modesty about it, either. He didn’t laud himself over anyone else,” said his son, Homer Fleetwood II. “He always respected the coaches and his teammates and he always just tried to do his best.
“He was better at baseball than he was at basketball. I remember how he influenced me to play catcher — that was my first position in Little League — but he didn’t push me into sports, he guided me. He was a good man and he was so well-respected in the community, but he didn’t impose his will on me as a Dad. He just made suggestions.”
Fleet — as he was known by youths and adults in the Foster Park neighborhood — took over as the director of recreation at Foster Park when he was honorably discharged following his service in World War II, and created opportunities for youngsters and adults while holding that job for more than two decades.
He retired in the mid-1960s, only to return to that position when park officials found that his replacement couldn’t do the job.
There was no replacing Fleet.
“He organized teams in baseball for Little League and Pony League ages, he started softball teams for women and men, and he organized tennis classes, mostly for women,” his son recalled. “In the fall he organized football teams and kids from 4 or 5 blocks away would come to play there. Then in the winter, he’d flood the tennis courts so people could ice skate. He even had kite-flying contests set up at Foster.
“My Dad made sure the children always had something they could do, equipment they could check out to play sports. He really impacted the community, and I saw how well-respected he was. He was always ready with a smile and a joke and he did have a charisma about him. I’m honored almost beyond words that he’s been chosen for the Hall of Fame.”
JUVON MCGARRY, BOYS BASKETBALL, CLASS OF 1989
Any true Evanston basketball fan would include Juvon McGarry on the all-time starting five for ETHS.
Nojel Eastern? Check.
Everette Stephens? Check.
Mason Rocca? Without a doubt.
Dave Tremaine? The ultimate shooting guard.
McGarry may fly under the radar compared to some of them. But McGarry’s old school, back-to-the-basket dominance in the years before the 3-point field goal was in vogue has earned him a spot in the Evanston Hall of Fame along with Stephens (1995), Tremaine (1957) and Rocca (2002). Eastern won’t be eligible to join them for another couple of years.
McGarry’s resume is impressive. He’s the career leading scorer at ETHS with 1,479 points in his three varsity seasons (1986-89), ranks second on the career rebounding list behind Rocca, and still owns the single season scoring mark, pouring in 604 points as a senior during the 1988-89 season.
After his ETHS career, the 6-foot-5, 220-pounder was the leading scorer for a Kankakee Community College team that ranked No. 1 in the nation his final year. In his only season at Western Illinois University, he was the squad’s second leading scorer.
McGarry moved to Evanston from the West Side of Chicago as an 8th grader and his ability was easy for head coach Mike Hart and assistant Jerry Murphy to spot right away. For a time, their biggest fear was that some Chicago public school would come in and recruit him away from ETHS.
“The city schools (led by Martin Luther King Jr. HS) were all over him, but fortunately his mother wanted him to come here,” recalled Murphy, who coached at ETHS for 22 years before retiring. “He knew and played against all of those guys in the city, guys like Ronnie Fields and Kevin Garnett. But he played for the FAAM (Fellowship of African-American Men) travel team here and he was truly, truly a unique player.
“He was the quickest jumper that I’ve ever seen. He was a tweener (in between size) in his career, and his shot was just OK, but around the hole he was incomparable. He played like he was 6-8 or 6-10. He’d get rebounds just because he got up off the floor quicker than anyone else. Nobody has ever done the job inside for us like he did. I don’t think he got the credit he deserved — although his teammates knew what he brought to the table — but when you talk about the top five players ever at Evanston, he’s on that starting team.”
McGarry and teammate Tyrone Bell (HOF Class of 2007) formed an impressive 1-2 punch together as seniors, but that Wildkit squad was upset by New Trier at the sectional tournament after beating the Trevians 3 times during the regular season and was denied a trip to the state finals. McGarry averaged 21.5 points as a senior, including a 34-point effort against Chicago Julian and 30-point games versus Lew Wallace (Ind.), Glenbrook North and Loyola Academy. He averaged 20 points per game and 11 rebounds as a junior.
Sophomores rarely earned promotions to the varsity in the years before McGarry’s move to the North Shore, but McGarry was a player of rare ability. He actually went along for the ride with the varsity to the Illinois High School Association state tournament as a freshman, but didn’t get on the floor then.
“He was physically mature, a man among boys,” Murphy pointed out. “We knew he was something special and we knew right away that he could play. He was an extremely coachable kid, too.”
“My mother moved here because she was trying to avoid the squabbles and the violence of the inner city, and she did a lot of research about where to move to get us out of the city,” McGarry explained. “I went to Chute in 8th grade and it was definitely a move for the better for me. King kept recruiting me and they knew I was a city guy, but by that point I was all in at Evanston.
“At Evanston I played hard and I played smart. I left it all out on the court every time I practiced or played a game. I was a well put together athlete and I tried to utilize all of my strengths to play to the best of my ability.
“I remember one game I played against New Trier, because I’d had an abcessed tooth pulled earlier that day,” he said. “That game was so intense and I still had so much novocaine in my mouth and I was numb. But we managed to pull off a win that night.
“My best game in high school as probably the City-Suburban All-Star game (where he was selected Most Valuable Player). It was the best guys from the suburbs against the best guys from the city, and we were losing by 30 at halftime. But I had an incredible game, even though we ended up losing by two. I had 32 points (17 rebounds) and 5 or 6 dunks in that game. It was a lot of fun because I didn’t get stuck in the post for that game. I got a chance to move around and dribble more.”
McGarry played some serious hoops in the summers in the city, matching up against players like Latrell Sprewell, Jamie Brandon, Shaquille O’Neal and his cousin Deon Thomas, a University of Illinois standout. And he rarely came out second best in those matchups.
At Kankakee, he impressed long-time head coach Denny Lehnus and the Cavaliers only lost 5 games in 2 years, bolstered by their sturdy post player.
“He’s the best combination of strength and quickness I’ve had in 26 years of coaching,” praised Lehnus, who sent 15 players to Division I schools in the 5 years before McGarry arrived on campus. “Juvon’s God-given abilities are very rare. He’s a real matchup problem for some people. He’s much quicker than most big people, and stronger than the smaller guys.”
McGarry landed at Western Illinois University as a junior after being recruited by four-year schools like Kansas State, Illinois State, Iowa State, Florida, Louisville and Northern Illinois. But his career at WIU was cut short due to a family tragedy, when his father was murdered in Chicago.
“Unfortunately, my father’s murder changed everything,” he said. “I had to come back home and that re-routed my whole life. My family needed a male figure around and I had to help support the family.
“Making the Hall of Fame is a tremendous honor, and I dedicate it to my coaching staff and my teammates, because it wouldn’t have been possible without them. It was an overall team effort that got me to this point.”
GABRIELLE MEAD, GIRLS TRACK, CLASS OF 1992
Gabrielle Mead may not have been the ultimate team player for the Evanston girls track program, but she showed the way for others at the dawn of Evanston’s girls track dynasty.
Mead captured the Illinois High School Association state championship in the 300-meter hurdles as a junior in 1991, placed 5th in that event as a senior and also collected three other state medals in relay races for a Wildkit program that broke through for its first state team title in 1991.
“Gabrielle came into the program without a pedigree (as a running phenom), but she was the ultimate team person,” said ETHS head coach Fenton Gunter. “She worked hard, made good improvement and just quietly did her thing so that by the time she was a junior she was a main staple on the team. She was our first state champion in the 300 hurdles (a new event created in 1986) and she set the standard for our other girls in that event. She also anchored the medley relay for us that year. Gabby had a heckuva work ethic, and she was able to perform on that stage at a high level in multiple events.
“All she wanted to do was run, do her job and be Gabrielle. She was quiet and unassuming off the track, while on the track, she was a pure beast.”
Mead combined athletic prowess with academic excellence during her years at ETHS, compiling a 4.3 grade point average (on a 4.0 scale) and earning Academic All-State recognition. She found a balance within a sport where the ETHS coaching staff tries to emphasize the team aspect of what is mostly an individual sport.
Mead admitted decades later that she was more excited about winning the 800-meter medley relay at State — combining with Maubra Foster, Rene Murphy and Sophia Tasker to win that race in 1 minute, 46.3 seconds — than she was about her unexpected gold medal performance in the 300 hurdles in 43.92.
“What the coaches did was instill a drive for individual success with accountability to the team at the same time,” Mead said. “I worked hard, but a lot of credit goes to the really good coaches I had. They taught us that your accountability was not just to yourself, but to the team, too. Fenny was always reminding us that we were always a team, even the people who came before you (in the program).
“My junior year was really an amazing year, a magic year. Fenny and Coach (Jesse) Sibert just told me to focus on my race, go out and do your job, and that’s what I did. After we won the medley — it was an early event at the meet — I just thought right away, what’s next? I was certainly excited to win it, but there was still a long day ahead of us.”
Mead wasn’t the favorite for the long hurdle race, but tacked on 10 valuable points in the team standings with her win and helped push the Wildkits to the top of the standings for the first time in school history.
“Gabby was a heckuva quarter-miler (56 second range) for us and she developed into a really good hurdler, too,” said Sibert. “She really took the time to train and get her technique down. She dropped her time so much that year. She ran a 45 at Bloom in early April (in the hurdles) and then got down to 43. She never even touched 44.
“She really stepped up and everything came together for her in that junior year. At State, she was nowhere near the favorite in the hurdles, but one of the top girls fell on the curve, and when she went down Gabby just took off and there was no catching her.”
“She was the first one we had (to) take on anchoring that medley relay, running the 300 hurdles and then coming back to anchor the mile relay,” Gunter pointed out. “She didn’t get much rest running those events, but we felt she was capable of it. She believed in herself and executed at a high level.”
As a senior at State, Mead settled for fifth place in the 300 hurdles, rallied the 1600 relay team from fourth place when she got the baton to an overall second place finish, and also contributed a leg that held the 800 medley team take sixth. ETHS earned sixth place in the team standings that year.
Mead scored gold medal finishes at both the Central Suburban League South division and sectional meets, but her times were slower than her junior year, due partly to physical changes in her body that affected her hurdling technique.
“She really matured from a girl’s body to a woman’s body in a short period of time, and that hurt her performance,” Gunter acknowledged. “It took awhile for her to adjust and I know that group of seniors thought they didn’t compete that well at State that year. But they competed as hard as they could over that two-day period, and that’s all you can ask.”
“Finishing 5th for me was very disappointing. But I realized how hard it is trying to win back to back like that,” Mead added. “I just wasn’t fast enough.”
Mead continued her track career at Yale University, switching to middle distance races by her sophomore year. A history major, she worked for a year for the Peace Corps and then attended law school in Virginia.
“Making it into the Hall of Fame is quite an honor,” she said. “I was able to find the right balance between athletics and academics and it really helped me throughout my life. I think my participation in track helped my academics, and my academics helped me focus in track.”
JOHN RIEHLE, FOOTBALL COACH/ATHLETIC DIRECTOR
John Riehle’s impact on and off the football field will never be forgotten by those he encountered and mentored at Evanston.
As head football coach, he guided the Wildkits to the Illinois High School Association state playoffs in 10 of the 12 years he led the program, including a trip to the semifinals in 1994 (11-2 record) and to the quarterfinals in 1997 (11-1 record).
A won-loss record of 97-33 included a total of 7 Central Suburban League South division championships in those 12 seasons. Evanston only endured one losing season with Riehle at the helm, at 4-5 in his final season in 1999.
Riehle also served as Athletic Director at ETHS from 2000-2005 and, as he had during his tenure in football, always put the needs of students first.
He helped a total of 48 football players earn Division I college scholarships, including 4 who played in the National Football League. Riehle’s career as both a coach and administrator could actually be summed up in just two words — He Cared.
“He was so artful with the way he treated all the players,” said Andrew Westhouse, a two-way standout for Riehle who graduated in 1998 and delivered a eulogy at Riehle’s funeral in 2010. “He was so intuitive about things like how your home life was going, and he always made us feel that we were all in it together. He was a special, special man who left an indelible mark on me.
“He could be very intimidating. If you were the subject of Coach Riehle’s ire, that wasn’t a good place to be. There were times when I actually felt he was singling me out, to the point where I was searching my soul and wondering if I really wanted to keep playing. But I stuck with it and by my senior year we were very close. Playing for Coach Riehle at Evanston was one of the most transformative and memorable experiences of my life.”
“I remember Coach as a man who could really light a fire under you,” said another former player, Algie Atkinson. “He really helped me a lot. He believed in my athletic ability even when I didn’t believe in myself.
“He was such a great motivator, and before games he’d get so riled up you really thought he was going to have a heart attack. He took me on road trips to visit college campuses — he did that for a lot of guys — and he really looked out for me. He helped me on and off the field.”
“Coach Riehle was incredibly organized, a masterful motivator,” added Jed Curtis, who served as an assistant football coach for 10 years before taking over as the boys head golf coach at ETHS. “At times I’d be ready to grab a helmet and go into a game myself, I’d be so pumped up listening to him!
“He had such a great sense of humor and the camaraderie we had on the football staff was so important because of the hours we spent together. He was a great mentor and was always so supportive of me. We worked our butts off, but we still had a ton of fun, too.
“He did a lot for a lot of kids, and he didn’t look for any recognition. Every kid was important to him, no matter if he was a starter or a third-string kid. He made every kid feel they were an important part of the team.”
Riehle earned recognition as an Evans Scholar at the University of Illinois, where he played for four years. He was a highly-respected coach at Elmhurst College, Austin High School and Oak Park-River Forest High School before coming to Evanston in 1987.
Riehle served as president of the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association and was inducted into its Hall of Fame in 2001.
CECIL ‘POP’ VANCE, FOOTBALL COACH
In the depths of the Great Depression, Pop Vance brought Evanston’s football program to new heights and led the Wildkits to three mythical state championships, five Suburban League titles and an overall record of 45-5-6. That’s not a misprint — the Kits had more ties than losses under Vance’s leadership.
Born in Olympia, Washington, Vance attended Washington State and the University of Montana, where he was an accomplished halfback and drop-kicking specialist. After six seasons as the head football coach at Hibbing (Minn.) High School, Vance moved to the Chicago area and coached one year at Proviso in Maywood, compiling a 4-3-1 record in the 1924 season.
Vance joined the ETHS coaching staff and assisted a fellow Hall of Famer, John Riddell, for three years before taking over in 1928. The Wildkits finished 6-0-2 in 1928; 3-4-1 in 1929; 7-0-1 in 1930; 7-1 in 1931; 7-0-1 in 1932; 7-0-1 in 1933; and 8-0 in 1934.
The Wildkits thrived in the toughest league in the state, the Suburban League. The league had been dominated by Oak Park-River Forest before Vance helped turn the tables on the Huskies’ program, posting a 4-2-1 record against OPRF in head-to-head competition.
Vance is also the only head football coach in school history to compile a “clean” record against rival New Trier, reeling off six straight wins against the Trevians after a 6-6 tie in his first year as head coach.
ETHS was awarded mythical state crowns in 1930, 1932 and 1934.
The 1930 squad held five opponents scoreless and scored 34 touchdowns to five for their opponents overall. According to a book called “This Place Is Full of Memories,” a history of Vance’s life, in a letter to a former player of his, Don Johnson, Vance noted that “we have cleaned up the Suburban League this fall in football and as a wind up gave Burwell’s school (Deerfield) a trimming of 54-0.”
In 1932, Evanston completed an undefeated season with a 7-6 victory over New Trier in the season finale. That team ranked among the coach’s favorite squads as only a scoreless tie with Chicago Bowen in the season opener marred what would have been a perfect record.
“This year’s football season has been very interesting, and I have probably gotten my biggest kick out of coaching this year,” Vance wrote to Johnson. “We placed five men on the All-Suburban (team) and probably should have had more.”
The 1934 Evanston school yearbook summed up that 8-0 season, which included shutout victories over Lindblom, Oak Park, Proviso, Waukegan, New Trier and East Aurora in this manner: “The 1934 Wildkit football team was probably one of the strongest and most powerful elevens that ever represented Evanston.”
Vance’s success didn’t go unnoticed. The new head coach at Northwestern University, Lynn “Pappy” Waldorf, added Vance to his staff as one of his first moves prior to the 1935 season. One of Waldorf’s motivations was that he felt Vance would bring some of his players along with him from a program known to be a high school juggernaut, and that first season ETHS standouts Bob Voigts and Dan Gertz did come along with Vance to NU. Voigts later earned All-American honors for the Wildcats and became NU’s head coach after Waldorf left in 1946.
Vance helped Northwestern win the Western Conference (pre-Big 10 era) championship in his first year, and also coached Heisman Trophy winner Clint Frank in 1937. Vance was diagnosed with leukemia in 1939, but did coach the Northwestern freshman team until his death in 1940 at age 48.
1963 BOYS GYMNASTICS TEAM
Evanston wasn’t even on the state gymnastics map in the early 1960s when Ron Walden was hired as head coach to start a new program.
When Walden was finished, he had established a mini-dynasty.
Working with athletes who had competed in the sport at any level prior to high school, Walden led the Wildkits to Illinois High School Association state championships in 1963, 1965 and 1967. Assistant coach Jerry Fontana later guided the program to four more top 5 state finishes after Walden left.
How big was gymnastics in those days at ETHS? For their home meets, the gymnasts usually had bigger crowds in Beardsley Gym than the basketball team did in that era.
The 1963 squad didn’t feature a single individual state champion on events like side horse, tumbling, horizontal bar, parallel bars, still rings and trampoline. But Walden’s philosophy was to build a team, not just to focus on the top individuals like most high school coaches did in those days.
So seven different Wildkits scored top 10 finishes in the state finals held at York High School in Elmhurst, enough to deliver the team title by a margin of 67 points to 54 for runnerup Niles East, also of the Suburban League. That performance completed a perfect 1963 season for ETHS, which won all 12 dual meets, dominated the Suburban League meet with a score of 122 to 96 for Proviso East, and edged Niles East by a half point (107-106.5) at the IHSA district meet at Niles.
Top scorers at the State meet included Joel Sutlin, 3rd on rings and 5th all-around; Dave Trippe, 2nd on rings and 7th all-around; Walt Knodle, 2nd on side horse; Vic Conant, 3rd on trampoline; Bob Hill, 5th on side horse; Bill Trippe, 6th on rings; and Bill Smith, 6th on horizontal bar.
“We won it with a team effort, and they really matured from when they started as freshmen to when they were seniors,” said Walden, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame himself in 2017. “It was no surprise, just a goal fulfilled for us. That was our goal right from the start when they were freshmen.”
“Coach Walden was my PE instructor as a freshman and he tried to explain what this thing called gymnastics was,” said Sutlin. “I remember how young he was and how he had lots of muscles. Up to that point I had never even heard of gymnastics. But I’m half monkey, I guess, so it came naturally to me.
“I was too late to try out for football so I thought I’d try this new sport called gymnastics. It was mostly about building your strength to do the tricks at first. Even after the season began we did a full regimen of exercises every day, and that really helped guys build themselves up.
“One of the characteristics Coach Walden brought was that you had to be able to perform a trick at least 3 times without a mistake in practice before you could use it in a meet. We won because we were so consistent.”
Conant called Walden “a life changing figure for me. When I came in as a freshman, he said in 3 years we’re going to win a state championship. What I remember most is the way he’d drill us the day before a meet, and under meet conditions. You couldn’t use a trick if you missed it, and that kept us from losing just because we tried tricks we couldn’t do.
“The way he drilled us was so professional and it helped you get over your nerves. I hated those Thursdays before the meets — I was always nervous the whole night before — but it helped prepare us for the meets.”
Conant eventually earned a scholarship and competed at the University of Michigan during his collegiate career. Sutlin went to Indiana and competed for the Hoosiers.
“This is a true honor for the whole team,” said Sutlin. “We didn’t even get mentioned in the school yearbook our senior year, but we made some history.”
1997 FOOTBALL TEAM
A case could be made that the 1997 squad was the best team in school history, despite all the “mythical” state titles earned by the Evanston football program over a storied past. That group of Wildkits tied the school record (11 wins) set by the 1994 squad, was the first team to post a perfect 9-0 mark during the regular season and averaged 34 points per game.
Only a 13-0 loss in the quarterfinal round of the Illinois High School Association state playoffs on the road at Andrew — after a storm dumped six inches of snow on the field at halftime — under bizarre circumstances prevented that team from turning in the best postseason performance by an ETHS team since the playoffs began in 1974.
Otherwise, the Wildkits were dominant all season — with a capital D led by the legendary linebacking trio of Sean Hopson, Andrew Westhouse and the late Tripp Healy. Hopson, Hall of Fame running back Siaka Massaquoi and Algie Atkinson, who set a single season school record for quarterback sacks with 15, were all selected as All-Staters as the Wildkits crushed St. Charles (42-17), Glenbrook North (41-0), Niles North (47-0), Maine West (28-10), Maine East (55-12), New Trier (28-20), Niles West (40-7), Glenbrook South (21-7) and Waukegan (33-12) and completed a perfect regular season.
The Central Suburban League South division champions then scored playoff romps over Zion-Benton (34-7) and Libertyville (33-10) before stumbling at Andrew.
Postseason success was expected by head coach John Riehle during his tenure, but considering that the senior class was only average as freshmen (4-5 record) and sophomores (5-4) and that only one starter (Massaquoi) was returning on offense from the previous year, no one could have predicted the success that followed.
All it took was the blue collar work ethic that players in the program were known for and it all came together in the fall of 1997.
“In 29 years of coaching, I have never been associated with a group that competed harder or cared more,” Riehle wrote in a booklet that wrapped up that season. “We believed in ourselves, our teammates and our coaches and we did it the right way — we worked and worked harder.”
Evanston’s dominance was so complete that the Wildkits never trailed at halftime of a game until that playoff matchup against Libertyville. Down 10-6, they turned to Massaquoi, who finished with 211 yards on 32 carries and scored 4 touchdowns.
Ranked No. 4 in the country at that point by USA Today, the Kits faltered on that fateful trip to the south suburbs for the Class 6A quarterfinals. Andrew turned a blocked punt into a 7-0 halftime lead, and in the mud and snow Massaquoi (29 carries, 60 yards) never got untracked and the Wildkits only crossed midfield twice in the entire second half.
“You have to give all the credit to Andrew, because they competed hard and deserved to win. But all these years later, I’m still sore about that game,” admitted Westhouse, a two-way starter at guard and linebacker. “A lot of us still blame divine intervention — at some level — for that game we didn’t win.
“We all improved as a team so dramatically, and I really believe we were a good example of what happens when you stick to it and work hard. People got bigger and stronger and we knew that good things would happen if we did what the coaches asked of us.”
One of those coaches, Jed Curtis, credited the improvement of offensive line stalwarts Westhouse, Gabe Suk, James O’Leary, Richard Pope, Alex Thomas, Sheldon Cannon and Andrew Sanni for Evanston’s offensive success. Operating behind those standouts, Massaquoi was almost unstoppable, rushing for a single season school record 2,035 yards and scoring 25 touchdowns. Overall, the Wildkits ran for over 3,000 yards and averaged 7 yards per rushing attempt.
“A lot of credit has to go to that offensive line,” Curtis said. “We had smart kids who knew their assignments and executed them. They got right to work the first week after the 1996 season ended. And obviously we had a great defensive team, filled with fundamentally sound and tough players.
“We were up against a very good St. Charles program in the opener and I think for us to come right out and play so well gave us confidence, and got us to thinking that maybe we’re a little better than we thought we were. We had great depth on that team, too. We had some third stringers who might have been first stringers in any other given year.”
Fueled by the attacking style of defense favored by assistant coach Matt Polinski, Atkinson had a monster season at defensive end even though he never played the sport until his sophomore year of high school. He currently holds the career record for sacks at both ETHS and Kansas University.
“I remember when we played Maine West and they had a tough running back (Alex Voltaire) who was pretty highly ranked,” said Atkinson. “I knew we’d be a team you didn’t want to mess with after we stopped them.
“Coach Riehle always had us prepared with game plans, just like the game plans we had when I went to college. We had something special and we were good all-around, on offense and on defense. I just wish it could’ve had a different ending.”