Gross leads Lady Knights to postseason success

Tom Batters
Richwoods girls basketball coach John Gross coached at Limestone for 26 years before coming to Richwoods and leading the Lady Knights to a state championship.

John Gross clenched his fists, wrinkled his brow and glared as he yelled, “Grab the ball” to one of his players who had failed to hold onto a rebound during the final minutes of a recent close game.

After the game, the glare was gone and Gross smiled as he talked to that same player who had drawn his ire just a few minutes earlier.

Gross’s players seem to know that his glares and gruff commands are only half of what he is all about. The other half is a kind, grandfatherly man who has a sharp sense of humor and a genuine concern for his players’ well-being on and off the court.

“I’ve had former players tell me that they didn’t like me most of the time when they played for me,” said Gross, who is in his fourth season as head girls basketball coach at Richwoods. “But, they also will say that, looking back, they really learned a lot and had fun, and that I wasn’t such a bad guy after all.”

Gross, 58, grew up in the Peoria area and graduated from Limestone High School in 1967.

He went to the University of Montana and majored in forestry because he wanted to work as a forest ranger for the National Park Service.

“That all changed in 1970,” he said. “One day a representative from the National Park Service came to speak, and he said because of all the budget cuts, there weren’t going to be any more forest ranger jobs. So, that was the end of that. I changed my major to education.”

Gross took a coaching class taught by Jud Heathcote, the former Michigan State coach who was head coach at Montana at the time.

“I really got a lot out of that,” said Gross, who played basketball at Limestone and continued to play intramural ball at Montana. “I liked his up-tempo offense, and his 2-3 matchups. I still use a lot of what I learned from him.”

After graduating from Montana, he took a teaching job at Limestone, where he was named head girls basketball coach in 1975.

He took Limestone to the state tournament six times and finished second in the state in 1992 with a 32-1 record. His team lost in the championship game to Chicago Marshall on a last-second shot.

“We did some great things at Limestone,” he said. “Right from my first year on, I think the players took to the hard-work, up-tempo style of play. Those were some excellent teams.”

He compiled a 544-167 record in 26 years at Limestone before he was fired.

“We parted our ways,” he said. “There were some differences in personalities there and they decided to let me go.”

He sat out a year, and wondered if he would ever get the chance to coach again.

He worked as the sophomore coach at Richwoods for a couple years before taking the varsity job in 2004.

Richwoods went 38-0 and won the state championship in his first season.

That team was a heavy underdog going into the state tournament, but it defeated Oak Park (Fenwick) and Chicago (Young) in the semifinals before beating Bartlett, 52-48, in the championship game at Redbird Arena.

That championship team featured the starting lineup of: Hanna Reising, Megan McGann, Biannca Ward, Stephanie Cole and Kylee Grant.

“That’s definitely the best team I ever coached,” Gross said. “We had a lot of talent, but they all meshed together so well. It all came together in the end. It was a special season.”

He called McGann, who led the Lady Knights in scoring the “heart and soul” of that team. She is now an assistant coach on Gross’s staff.

McGann said it was “extremely intimidating” when Gross took over as head coach in 2003, her senior year.

“He had such a great reputation from all his success at Limestone, and we knew he was going to be a demanding coach,” she said. “But, luckily, we didn’t see too much of his tough side, since we won all of our games.”

McGann said she never took it personally whenever Gross was a bit abrasive.

“He’ll joke with you, too,” she said. “All coaches have different styles. Coach Gross can be intimidating, but we always knew he had our best interests in mind.”

Sarah Muzzarelli, an assistant coach at Richwoods, who played for Gross at Limestone, said Gross’s “tough side” can be misleading.

“Don’t tell him I said this, but he’s really a big teddy bear,” she said. “He expects a lot from his players, and he will push every player only because wants to see her reach her full potential. But, anyone who knows him will tell you that he has a good heart and a great sense of humor.”

He showed that sense of humor after the Lady Knights beat Washington, 76-43, Jan. 29, led by freshman guard Mariah Smith’s 26 points.

When asked about Smith’s quickness and ability to get open, Gross smiled and said, “I thought she was pretty slow tonight. But, when I played I was really slow, so I guess it’s hard for me to evaluate quickness.”

Gross will undergo double knee replacement surgery after the season. He walks with a slight limp and the recent arctic air has not helped the pain.

Gross is retired from teaching. He and his wife, Pam, enjoy traveling, but he said he does not plan to retire from coaching anytime soon.

“As long as I enjoy it and have passion for it, then I’ll continue to coach,” he said.

Gross is in his 30th season as a head coach. He won his 100th game at Richwoods earlier this year, and he just keeps winning. The Lady Knights are ranked No. 6 in the Associated Press poll, and they are the No. 1 seed in the Woodruff Regional.

“After I left Limestone, there was that one year when I thought I would never coach again,” he said. “I’m grateful that Richwoods gave me this opportunity. I look forward to getting a hundred more wins.”