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The IHSA State Boys Basketball runner-up trophy won by the Waukegan High School basketball team. | Photo by Thomas Delany Jr.
In these times, it’s almost a universal that the administrators at high schools want to have head coaches of their varsity sports teaching at their schools, making them readily available whenever they’re needed for any reason.
When Waukegan High School hired Mike Wasielewski last month to teach social studies and lead the Bulldogs’ boys basketball program, they couldn’t have located him closer to the scene of what surely will be future success.
His classroom literally is right down the hall from the Dog Pound in the school at Washington/Jackson, meaning if he’s ever late for basketball practice, he’s probably going to have come up with a dog-ate-the-homework kind of excuse.
Now, with the coach settling into his roles as teacher and coach, and fall basketball season getting under way — yes, there is a no-coach “fall league,” with games being played on Sundays at Trinity International University on Route 22 in Bannockburn/Deerfield — he took time to talk about where he’s been, how he got here, and where he expects the Bulldog program to be down the road.
On taking the Waukegan job after coaching basketball at Elmwood Park, a Class 3A (think Vernon Hills’ size) school near Chicago:
“When the Waukegan job opened up, I couldn’t pass up that opportunity. I’m a huge high school basketball follower. I know Waukegan has a long basketball tradition, and I know the sport is something that matters to the people in town. I followed the (Jereme) Richmond teams that went to state in back-to-back years.
“I’m thrilled to be at Waukegan. This is the kind of program I’ve always wanted to coach.”
On his time at Elmwood Park:
“I spent eight years teaching at Lane Tech, and for the last four years, I got in the car after school and made the drive to Elmwood Park (during basketball season). I was looking for an opportunity to become a head coach. It was a program that was really struggling. They hadn’t had a winning season — hadn’t won 10 games in a season — since 1998-99. It was definitely a project, and I think they liked my enthusiasm for turning things around.”
“We did a lot of good things. We made the first regional final in school history (a 71-54 loss to North Chicago). We were actually leading North Chicago at halftime in that game (31-29). That was the year they finished second in state. That year, we had the first winning season at Elmwood Park in over a decade.
“I’m pretty proud of starting the Junior Tigers feeder team. We grew it from just a few kids to over 50 kids and four levels. From where we started to being able to compete in tournaments and beat teams from bigger school districts, we came a long way. Whoever takes over at Elmwood Park will have some good players to work with.”
On the hiring process at Waukegan:
“It’s been a long process (he interviewed to be coach in early June). “I was hired as a teacher at the end of June, so I was always going to be teaching here, but it was a long wait for the final approval from the board.
“It was probably the most intense interview process I’ve experienced. I was asked a lot of questions about my coaching style and philosophy. They had me watch game film and come up with an analysis of how Waukegan played, including the things I liked and areas where I think we can improve.”
On how his style of hoops will fit with what the kids want to play and the people want to see?
“I didn’t come to Waukegan because I want to change everything. I love the way the kids get after it on defense. They’ve had success playing that up-and-down, full-court game. I think if you ask any basketball coach they’d love to be able to play that way. So defensively, other than making sure the effort and intensity stay where they need to be, I don’t really want to change anything.
“Offensively, I’d like to work on our expertise. One of the things I noticed watching film is that they sometimes had trouble establishing a rhythm in the half court. So I’d like to see us put a greater emphasis on offensive expertise, with the idea of getting our players to the right spots on the floor and taking quality shots.”
On what other coaches have told him about his new position:
“I’ve been getting texts and calls from coaches all over the state. The response has been really positive ... a lot of encouragement.
“I talked with (former) coach (Ron) Ashlaw (who left to take the job at Bloom High) and picked his brain about Waukegan basketball. He was great. He talked with me for a bit about the kids and their games, and about the things they had been doing as a program.”
On what’s next?
“One of our major orders of business is putting together a coaching staff. I’d like to hammer that down. (Athletic director) Sam (Taylor) wants us to put everyone through an interview process. The goal is to put together the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable coaching staff we can, with coaches who communicate well with the kids.”
On making the jump from the obscurity of Elmwood Park to the fishbowl that is Waukegan and the Central Suburban League:
“I always wanted to get back to that atmosphere of big-time basketball. I played for Mark Lindo at Naperville North, who’s in the Hall of Fame and has over 400 wins. My senior year (1999-2000), the DuPage Valley (Conference) had the state champion (West Aurora). Obviously, they play great football in that league, and I went to school with guys who went on to play in the NFL.
“After I graduated, I went to U of I where I was on the scout team, which was a great experience. So I was used to being around big-time programs and big-time athletes. Going to Elmwood Park was actually kind of a culture shock for me.
“I’m excited about getting back to the type of atmosphere I got to experience as a player. When you look around the league, there’s obviously a great athletic tradition.”