JOLIET – Joe Gura is a throwback.
At least he was this summer.
"I went back to the future 30 years," Gura said, describing the summer he orchestrated for his Joliet Catholic Academy boys basketball team.
He explained, "I had seven or eight teams in at a time, sophomore teams and varsity teams. [Joliet Central coach] Larry Thompson and [Lockport coach] Brett Hespell brought their teams.
"For 20 or 30 minutes, coaches would say what they want to work on. Larry might say he wants to work on their zone offense, so could we play zone defense for a while. They would trouble-shoot for a half-hour or so, and then I would do it. So we had a teaching scrimmage for an hour or so with all the coaches on the floor."
Gura was happy to get his young team away from summer tournaments.
"I got tired of going to tournaments where by game two, nobody cared, or your guys would not even be there," he said. "They'd be off doing something else.
"These things that we did, I coordinated with our football and baseball schedules, so we didn't have a lot of conflicts."
In total, Gura said JCA had "12 practices and eight game nights. We got more out of these 20 days than out of any tournaments we were in the last two years."
Gura, who turned 65 in April, is a teacher first and foremost. Always has been, in the classroom and on the basketball court.
"This was perfect for me to teach our system and have it applied practically," he said. "I was able to evaluate it through the lens of playing other teams."
The Hilltoppers were hit hard by graduation, and Gura said it will take awhile for his inexperienced group to mesh. But he feels it will come.
The core of the Hilltoppers next season will include senior guard Aidan Tyrell, senior forward Ryan Zobel, sophomore guards Christian Knapczyk and Jake Bumstead and several juniors – Max Briscoe, Zach Gould, Connor Ward and Gunter Nusbaumer.
"Aidan Tyrell is the only varsity experienced guy back," Gura said of the left-hander who will be the Hilltoppers' quarterback in the fall and ace on the mound next spring. In fact, he is committed to pitch at Notre Dame.
"We'll run a two-point-guard system and Aidan will be one," Gura said. "He got better last year as the year went on. He's a quiet leader. I'm very pleased with him."
Gura said good guard play is vital to whatever success the Hilltoppers achieve.
"My teams seem to do their best when we have good guards.," he said. "Aidan, Jake Bumstead and Christian Knapczyk are good guards. So is Connor Ward. Knapczyk is the son of my assistant [Tom Knapczyk] and is an outstanding athlete. He's already committed to Louisville for baseball."
Gura mentioned Nusbaumer and Zobel as having good summers as well.
"So we have two seniors, two sophomores and three or four juniors in our core," he said. "We will be young and somewhat inexperienced. And even with the two guys up [on varsity], our sophomore class will be outstanding. So I like where the program is going."
Local fans will have a better opportunity to see JCA in action early this season as the Hilltoppers are returning to the WJOL Thanksgiving Tournament at University of St. Francis.
"We will play Lockport and maybe Joliet Central there, and we saw them this summer, but that's OK," Gura said. "Larry [Thompson] and I had one of the great nights of the summer together."
Thompson and Gura were together for an extensive period at Lockport, and they treasure their relationship. Hespell, of course, also is part of the Lockport connection.
Meanwhile, Gura is happy with how things have gone at JCA.
"When I came to Joliet Catholic six years ago, I was 59," he said. "They put faith in me and now we're to the point where I feel we are as respected a program as there is in the area. As long as my health stays good, I'll last two or three more years. Why not?
"We won 50 games over the last three years. Most of the guys who helped elevate us are playing college ball. We have to make sure we keep it going now. We have a chance with the kids we have coming up. We're excited."