When Mike Ellis came in from Peoria Richwoods to take over the Evanston Township basketball program, his first order of business was to make sure Evanston’s homegrown players remained in the ETHS program.
Three players who lived in Evanston competed for other schools in the sectional tournament after the Wildkits were eliminated that first postseason, and Ellis vowed not to let that happen again.
So he dug deep into the grassroots of Evanston’s basketball community — and found leaders and teachers and role models who helped lay the foundation for this year’s run to the Illinois High School Association Final Four.
Call it a perfect storm — that’s what Ellis called the opportunity to build a staff of assistants who have one thing in common. They all wore the Wildkit uniform during their own high school playing careers. It’s rare for any one program at any high school to count on a large staff made up completely of alumni, but that’s one reason for Evanston’s success on and off the court.
Varsity assistants Necus Mayne and Rudy Meo, along with lower level coaches Stacey Moragne, Scott Horne, Travis Ransom and Jetter Gibson, have all played key roles on a staff that has had zero turnover over the past 5 seasons.
Unlike college coaches who switch jobs whenever the grass is greener elsewhere, high school coaches moving onto another program don’t have the luxury of bringing assistants with them — unless there’s a faculty job available at the new school. So Ellis was on his own when it came to adjusting to the Evanston basketball community, and inherited all of his assistants from departed coach Bobby Locke.
“I was fortunate that I had the opportunity to spend (the late) Bob Bost’s last year here with him,” said Ellis. “He stuck around to help and I owe him a huge debt of gratitude. He introduced me to the Central Suburban League gyms and the foundation was really laid with his input.
“My No. 1 goal became to keep Evanston kids home, and I thought what better way than to get help from those who bleed Orange and Blue? I sought out people who’d had anything to do with Evanston basketball. I was fortunate because I knew (then ETHS assistant) Steve Turner from Peoria and he was the one who had a relationship with these guys.
“A position opened up for Steve in the school business office and that meant the two of us could share our vision with the new coaches as they came along. We wanted coaches who would teach and educate the children of the great families I found in Evanston.”
Mayne, who has become the head coach’s right-hand man, was a key “get” for Ellis.
“Necus was running the feeder program for Niles North the first time I met him, but you could feel the passion and the energy he had for Evanston basketball,” said the head coach. “His vision and his goals were perfectly aligned with mine. All of the coaches have the same values on our staff. They’re not in it for the fame or the money, they’re all in it for the kids, and they all put in a lot of time. I think the kids understand that they all have the same agenda, to help you as much as we can.
“Travis and Jetter do a great job of laying the foundation and the freshmen coaches probably put in more hours than anyone. They do an outstanding job of teaching and they’re great disciplinarians, too. They’re the ones who foster relationships with the younger kids in middle schools, at camps and at open gyms,” he added.
“I think having Stacey and Scott together (on the sophomore level) makes for a great pairing. They played here during the program’s glory days and together they can bring a history that I can’t teach myself. I think the tradition here should be important to the players because a lot of great players have walked these halls.
“Rudy and Necus were gym rats growing up and they’re always in the gym now, too. Necus focuses a lot on our defense and he’s the closest thing to a defensive coordinator that we have. As a head coach, you want assistants who you think will be loyal and not have a personal agenda, and the second thing is their style and knowledge of the game. Would you want to put your son or daughter in their hands? I would LOVE to have each and every one of them coach my children.
“To see the pride these guys have in competing for Evanston is really something I admire and respect. You see their eyes glow every time they step into Beardsley Gym.”
Here’s a closer look at one of the state’s best coaching staffs.
RUDY MEO, ETHS CLASS OF 2005
“I never imagined I’d be a coach,” said Meo, who is an accountant for District 202. “Five years ago I would have told Coach Ellis no. I was in California when he reached out to me and said he was losing Steve Turner and he needed someone he could trust. I was a volunteer my first year and I did coach some youth basketball when I was in San Diego. It was a lot of fun working with young kids and I found I really liked it.”
Meo played for Coach Paul Pryma and was a two-year varsity starter at ETHS, before moving on to play Division I basketball at Cal-Riverside.
“If a position had opened up somewhere else, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much,” Meo said. “This is where I was taught and grew up, and it’s fun for me. It’s never been a job for me — it’s more of a passion. I’m an Orange and Blue guy and I just wanted to do whatever I could to help the program. I came and watched some practices, and worked on some individual skill sets with some of the guys and Coach Ellis thought I’d be a good fit.
“The head coach has so many responsibilities and what I try to do is focus on relationships with our guys outside of the Xs and Os. I think one of my strengths is that I’m a numbers guy, and I do a lot of the breakdowns with our statistical stuff. Coach Ellis is really huge on that stuff.
“When I went to school you wouldn’t see the varsity assistant coach watching the freshmen play. I think it’s huge for their confidence level for the freshmen to see us around. The coaches on the lower levels use the same concepts and terminology that we use on the varsity, and since they’re teaching the same things we are, we don’t have to teach things all over again at the varsity level. This is really similar to a college program, and I think the players are getting a college-level experience here.”
NECUS MAYNE, ETHS CLASS OF 2002
During his playing days at ETHS, Mayne sometimes saw classmates slip through the cracks due to outside influences or poor grades. That’s a lesson that stuck with him and prompted him to join the Wildkit staff after getting his feet wet as a coach at his alma mater (University of Massachusetts-Lowell) and Niles North.
“When I was in high school there were a ton of guys who were way more talented than I was,” Mayne recalled. “I always felt it was a shame that I got the opportunities they didn’t get, because if there was a guy to keep them straight and guide them, and relate to them, it could have happened for them, too.
“I didn’t move here (from Chicago) until I was in fourth grade and I went to 5 different schools in the city. Once we moved here, I knew right off the bat how lucky I was. I wasn’t in a torn-down school room sharing books with 3 other kids. When I got to high school Coach Pryma taught us so many lessons about life. He taught me how to be a man, and that’s something I’ll never forget. It’s something I wanted to try and give back.”
Mayne is a full-time employee of the ETHS safety department and helps maintain the halls where Kit legends walked in the past.
“I know the landscape here, and there are not too many places where all the guys understand what it’s like to be a player at your school,” he noted. ““I loved coaching at Niles North, but when the opportunity to come back here presented itself, that was a no-brainer. When you look at the history of this program that was something I wanted to be a part of again.
“I take pride in the defensive end of the game. Some of the kids tease me about my own lack of offensive prowess and I joke right back with them that I could still lock up a Chris Paul or a Russell Westbrook. It doesn’t matter who you line up against, you have to put on a hard hat and be ready to lock them down on the defensive end. I’m on them all the time about doing the little things on the defensive end.”
STACEY MORAGNE, ETHS CLASS OF 2002
Moragne had the most accomplished playing career among the Wildkit aides, as a two-time All-American at UMass-Lowell and he played professionally for 6 years before returning to Evanston. He works as a 1-on-1 aide for the school’s special education department and was prompted to join the coaching ranks after the tragic shooting death of Dajae Coleman back in 2012.
“It’s been an amazing ride for me,” Moragne recalled. “When I stopped playing I knew I wanted to give back something here. Then when Dajae was killed I decided I wanted to give back a little more. I’m a man of God, a big believer, and I felt like it was my calling. It really hit home to me when he passed.
“This is a unique place and I know how much basketball means to this community. To play here and then to come back and be with these amazing kids is really special. To me, it’s an honor to wear the name ‘Evanston’ across your chest.
“The hard part about coaching is that a lot of these kids are stars in FAAM (Fellowship of African-Americans) and other leagues and some of them are just given everything at a young age. Everyone’s a winner at that age and they come into high school thinking they’re this, they’re that and they think mediocrity is OK. What I try to teach them is a winning mentality, but winning the RIGHT way. I was in their shoes not so long ago and I try to motivate them the best way I can.
“For me, coaching is a blessing. I’m lucky to be around them.”
SCOTT HORNE, ETHS CLASS OF 2001
As the program supervisor for the City of Evanston at the Chandler-Newberger Community Center, Horne runs the basketball leagues for boys and girls in fourth and fifth grade in District 65. So he gets an early look at future standouts — and thinks it’s important that they wear an ETHS uniform when they get to be teenagers.
Horne was Evanston’s Most Valuable Player as a junior and a senior and joined the ETHS staff back in 2010.
“At one point my brother Andy (the sophomore coach at rival New Trier) wanted me to help him out over there, but my idea of giving back is not working with some privileged New Trier kids,” Horne said. “I’m a part of this community and for me this is bigger than basketball. There’s a certain amount of pride being part of this program in the community I grew up in, and I have a real love for these kids.
“My first couple of years there were two or three really good players from here who went to other schools, and it was frustrating seeing Evanston kids who did not want to play for Evanston. Then Nojel Eastern came in and put our program on his back and the younger kids looked up to him like he’s Michael Jordan. He’s an even better person than he is a player.
“I think Coach Ellis is a genius when it comes to the Xs and Os, and you’re not going to out-work him. He’s in there at 4 a.m. breaking down film. He sets the example for all of us.”
TRAVIS RANSOM, ETHS CLASS OF 1994
Basketball certainly wasn’t the end game for Ransom after he finished school. He didn’t play basketball in college and already had a successful career as an IT manager for a real estate company before deciding he wanted to get back in the game back around 2010.
“I did want to stay around basketball, but it wasn’t the end game for me,” Ransom remembered. “I still went to Evanston games and FAAM games (as a spectator). At one point, me and a few individuals tried to start a feeder program when Bobby Locke was the head coach, but it never got off the ground.
“When Coach Ellis came in he was trying to get a feel for the community and I was helping my Dad coach at FAAM. Part of the AAU group I was with talked with him about making sure we could set something up that was specifically for Evanston kids. Coach asked around about me and I got a call from him asking me to come coach, but initially I told him no. I didn’t think I’d have time, but eventually I worked it out with my employer. When I got the job part of the interview process was that I told them I could do IT work from anywhere, but from November to March my schedule was about basketball and they could take it or leave it.
“I thought I’d only do it for one year, but once you’re on the inside of the program your perspective changes. I’m in a field that I enjoy immensely but basketball is just as important to me. And Coach Ellis is so great to work with. He promotes the idea of speaking your mind and he wants you opinion 100 percent of the time — even though he might shoot you down 99 percent of the time.”
Working with the youngest players in the high school program, along with Gibson, Ransom’s role is a bit different trying to prepare them for the high expectations by the time they mature to the varsity level.
“Coach Jetter and I are the bad guys,” he laughed. “We’re responsible for weeding out the kids who aren’t serious about basketball. We give them a hard-core view of what four years of basketball in our program will look like. We want kids who want to play, but at the same time we can’t give them the impression that it will always be fun. This is nothing like middle school basketball and that’s something they have to learn.
“At our level we try to teach them what giving 100 percent actually looks like. We try to give them the foundation they need.”
JETTER GIBSON, GBS CLASS OF 2001
Jetter Gibson’s dissatisfaction with the ETHS program led him to transfer to Glenbrook South following his freshman year. He played for the Wildkit sophomore team as a talented first-year player, but balked at the notion of remaining at the sophomore level the next season the way former varsity head coach Conte Stamas wanted him to.
Plagued by injuries as a junior and a senior, Gibson wound up seeing little action for the Titans. He eventually found his way back to Evanston, and now his son Jaylin is a key member of the ETHS varsity as a freshman. The elder Gibson’s contributions to the FAAM league and his connection with Turner — the two were teammates at Lincoln College — helped him re-establish a bond with the program.
Gibson is currently a financial analyst for Advocate Medical Group but has never lost his passion for the game of basketball.
“I knew what the FAAM program meant to me as I was growing up, and that was a chance for me to give back,” Gibson recalled. “I also coached some AAU ball. Right after Coach Ellis came in, Steve Turner called me from Louisiana and reached out to me. I had just started coaching AAU and I worked the next 2 years in the feeder program, and joined the high school staff in 2012.
“I understood the game and I always wanted to be part of it, and when Jaylin came along I thought, who can best teach your son but you, yourself? It’s always good when you can see your child be successful and be a part of it. I’ve had Jaylin and Blake Peters (current varsity starter) since they were in 3rd grade (in his Hoop Avenue Elite AAU program).
“Even with 4 freshmen on the varsity this year, we still had winning records on the A and B levels for the first time I can remember. That Class of 2021 sees those 4 freshmen on the varsity and that makes them work even harder. They see where they need to go, and I’m constantly getting texts asking me for more open gyms. I really think this will be a special class.”