CHICAGO -- The elite Chicago Public League basketball teams win games and produce Division I players. That top-tier category hasn’t changed much as of late. It includes Simeon, Whitney Young, Curie, Crane, Morgan Park, Marshall, Farragut, Hyde Park, Brooks, Foreman, among a few others.
But if one was to go back 10-plus years, the list would be slightly different. King and Westinghouse would be there, but the one surprising find would likely be Taft.
Located on Chicago’s Northwest Side, Taft was once a city power. The Eagles won and produced Division I players regularly. From 1975 to 1998, the Eagles won less 15 games just twice and their Division I players included Iowa State recruit Kenny Pratt and Wisconsin recruit Howard Moore.
Taft’s program began to dip after the school stopped bringing in students from throughout Chicago and became a neighborhood school in 2002. With the best local players going to Notre Dame, St. Patrick and elsewhere, the Eagles’ talent dropped off and their record followed.
But now has come along a neighborhood kid to help change that.
Six-foot-5 sharpshooting forward John Joyce opted to attend Taft rather than Notre Dame out of grammar school and now as a sophomore has the makings of the Eagles’ first Division I player in 15 years. And with the assistance of some other skilled players around Joyce, Taft is looking to restore its standing in the Public League.
Joyce, who is the ESPNChicago.com Prep Athlete of the Week, is averaging 14.4 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.1 steals and has made 42-of-95 3-pointers for the Eagles, who are 13-6 overall and 5-1 in the Red-North.
“At first, Notre Dame was trying to get me, but Taft was the neighborhood school for me,” Joyce said. “We went to check out a game there, and I liked the way coach Brett [Nishibayashi] was coaching. I was thinking we could get Taft to compete with the state and go pretty far. I think if we work hard and work together we can do something.”
Joyce’s work ethic is among his best traits. But what will attract Division I coaches to Joyce is his size and shooting ability.
“From all accounts, most people think John’s a Division I player,” said Nishibayashi, who was Taft’s last Division I player. “I’d say right now he’s mid-major. He can develop into a high-major Division I player. The sky’s the limit for John. Everybody is well aware of how good he can be.”
Joyce has not only been good for Taft this season, but he’s come through when the Eagles have needed him the most. He hit five 3-pointers and scored 21 points in a loss to St. Patrick. He had 17 points against Maine South, 18 points against Notre Dame, 16 points against Marist, 21 points against Evanston, 18 points against Zion-Benton and matched a season-high 22 points against Prosser earlier this week.
“I would like to think he understands the competition has gone up, so he has to raise his game up a little bit,” Nishibayashi said. “For him to respond in games like that consistently is impressive. I can’t think of any reason why he’s like that. I’d rather him coming through in the big games than the not-so-big games. His ability to score in high-pressure situations, that impresses me the most.”
Joyce couldn’t explain it himself.
“I’m not sure,” said Joyce, who has heard from Utah State. “My mindset before those games is, ‘We got to win. We’re the underdog in this game.’ I get butterflies before those games. I know everyone thinks we’re supposed to lose. I know we have a chance to win.”
Taft’s window for sneaking up on people is quickly closing. The Eagles already have knocked off Maine South, Marist and St. Patrick, all respected teams, this season.
The Eagles and Joyce will have another measuring stick on Saturday when they face No. 7 New Trier. The Trevians have lost twice this season and possess multiple Division I prospects.
Win or lose on Saturday, Nishibayashi likes where Joyce and Taft’s program his headed.
“For the program, it’s definitely a step in the direction we’re trying to go,” Nishibayashi said. “Program is the operative word. We don’t want to be a good team for 2011-2012. We want to develop the program to where it was in the 90s. This was a good program back in the 80s and 90s. We want to get back to that point.”