The Batters Box
John Gross had a lot of time to think about things on the bus ride home from DeKalb Feb. 25.
The thick snow blew horizontally straight at the traffic and the interstate was covered with slush so that even the most ambitious drivers could barely go more than 40 miles an hour down the dark road.
The trip home lasted almost four hours, so Gross, head coach of the Richwoods girls basketball team that had just lost a heartbreaker in the Supersectional, had a lot of time to replay the game in his head over and over again.
I met with Gross on Feb. 27, just a few minutes after he conducted a final meeting with his players.
He still looked a little tired from the trip, and I could sense that he was still taking the loss pretty hard.
The bulb in his office was burned out, so he led me into the empty locker room. We sat down on a lonely wooden bench in front of the lockers.
I wondered if this might be a difficult interview, since it was only a couple days after that devastating loss in DeKalb.
But, as Gross talked to me, his expression changed. He was not dejected or bitter, as I feared he might be so soon after his team’s season ended one game short of a spot in the state finals.
“I’ll have that last play going through my head until next November,” he said solemnly, followed by a dignified smile. “But, overall I’m proud of what we accomplished. It would be nice to be preparing for a state finals game right now, but you can’t win it every year. We’ll be good again next year. I’m already looking forward to that.”
We reminisced about the season, in which the Lady Knights went 29-6, won the Mid-State 6 Conference, and took home the LaSalle Sectional crown.
I asked him to go back to Nov. 27, when the Lady Knights lost to conference rival Peoria Central on a last-second three-point shot. It was their third loss in a row. They led the whole game, but blew a seven-point lead with two minutes left.
“That was a difficult loss, especially the way it happened,” he said. “But, it actually turned out to be a good thing, in a way. It was a wake-up call for us. We started playing our 1-3-1 trap defense and we started playing more aggressive on both ends. It turned our season around.”
Richwoods won its next 11 games before losing to powerhouse Chicago Hope in the finals of the State Farm Holiday Classic.
“We played scared to death against Chicago Hope,” he said.
A 49-37 loss to Moline on Jan. 14 was the only other bump on the road to a Sectional championship.
The Lady Knights won 14 of their last 15 games, including a resounding victory over state-ranked Metamora in the championship game of the Woodruff Regional.
I asked Gross if he was able to sit back and enjoy that game, which Richwoods won, 61-37, and led comfortably the whole way.
“Every time I relaxed we started to fall apart,” he said, laughing. “So, I kept my foot on the gas.”
Gross said he saw a slight “let-up” after the Regional. His team struggled at times in wins over Rock Island Alleman and Morton in the LaSalle Sectional.
“For some reason, the intensity wasn’t there. I guess I could have been harder on them, but you don’t really want to run suicides (sprints) for an hour this time of year,” he said.
Gross said, despite the mysterious drop in intensity level, he was still confident about his team’s chances going into the Supersectional game against Freeport, a team Richwoods beat by 22 points in December.
Richwoods led, 39-33, at the start of the fourth quarter, but Freeport came back to win, 50-48, when Katie Norman drove the length of the court and hit a shot in the final seconds.
“On the bus ride home, I thought about things I could have done differently,” Gross said. “If I had it to do over again, I would have tried to slow the ball down some more. I was so concerned about telling our players not to foul. They understood that message, but they didn’t play enough defense. I’ll take the blame for that.”
Gross said the loss does not overshadow the many positive memories he can hold onto from this season.
Janise Dismuke, the senior who earned a spot on the state’s All-American team as an honorable mention, provided a lot of the memories.
“It was gratifying to watch her improve so much,” he said. “She was so much more of a complete player as a senior than she was as a junior. If she missed a shot, she didn’t give up. She just made the next one. She played with a lot of confidence. I wish I had her back for another year.”
Gross said he will miss Dismuke’s personality just as much as her ability.
“I never had to worry about her getting into trouble, or letting her grades slip, or anything like that,” he said. “She’s a good kid.”
Gross said it was difficult to say goodbye to Dismuke and senior Brittany Trammell, but that is part of the job that is never easy.
“Brittany was so versatile for us. Whatever we asked her to do, she did it. I’ll miss her, too.”
Trammell and Dismuke were the only two seniors on the team, which Gross said is encouraging for the future.
“A lot of our key players will be back, and they will have the experience from this year to draw on,” he said. “I will have high expectations when next season starts.”
Gross, who will undergo double knee replacement surgery later this month, said he plans to relax for a while before he draws up plans for summer basketball.
I thanked him for the interview and walked back out of the locker room into the gym.
The baseball team was practicing and the sound of baseballs smacking into gloves echoed in the hallway as I left.
I was no longer thinking about how worried I was to approach Gross for an interview just a couple days after such a tough loss.
Instead, I thought to myself, “I can’t wait until next season.”