YORKVILLE — Nine years ago, Yorkville Christian was just an idea.
The stakeholders involved had a year to plan. A year to figure out just what they wanted the school to be, how it would function.
Basketball was a part of that. The first two years of the school’s existence, though, didn’t come with an IHSA membership. Yorkville Christian coach Aaron Sovern had to put a piecemeal schedule together — basically any small school that would agree to play the Mustangs.
“The school was so small, there were times we would finish the game with only four players on the floor,” Sovern said. “I’d be lying if I’d say there weren’t times I’d be going, ‘God, what did I get myself into?’”
The first official season in the IHSA wasn’t much better. The Mustangs posted a 5-19 record during the 2016-17 campaign with a roster loaded with freshmen. But progress was made. Seasons of 10, 23 and 24 wins followed before last year’s pandemic-shortened 11-1 campaign.
And now? Now Yorkville Christian is set to make its first Class 1A state tournament appearance. The Mustangs (23-13) will play Steeleville (29-6) at 10 a.m. Thursday in the first state game back at State Farm Center since Peoria Manual topped Thornton 65-53 in the Class AA state championship on March 18, 1995.
“A journey would be a great way to describe it,” Sovern said about Yorkville Christian’s path to state. “We stuck with the program.”
Sovern’s oldest son was one of the freshmen on Yorkville Christian’s first IHSA-eligible team.
“There were many times we’d come home after taking a beating and he’d be really down about things,” Sovern said. “I said, ‘Just stick with it. We’re going to continue to build this.’ By his senior year, we were one of the top-ranked teams in the state at that point. I give a lot of credit to the kids that were there those first four years with laying the foundation. We’ve got some names nobody has ever heard of.”
Sovern rattled off the names of Jake Schutt, Noah Lewis, Alex Avalos, Tristen Phillips and his son, Christian, as the group that helped set Yorkville Christian on its path to first, basketball birth, and then basketball relevancy. Those players, the Mustangs’ coach said, are taking special pride in the current team’s accomplishments.
Yorkville Christian isn’t all unknowns anymore. Not with Jaden Schutt on the roster. The consensus four-star guard signed with Duke — yes, that Duke — in November.
Schutt’s presence on the roster meant invitations to a number of shootouts this season for Yorkville Christian. That wasn’t all Sovern threw at the Mustangs, either. Their schedule was loaded with challenging opponent after challenging opponent.
Yorkville Christian played big-school teams like St. Rita, Springfield Lanphier, St. Patrick, Glenbard West, Hyde Park, Chaminade (Mo.), Orr, Glenbrook South, New Trier, Kenwood, Peoria Notre Dame and St. Ignatius in the regular season.
As challenging a slate for any Class 1A team and constructed that way for a reason.
“We tried to put our players in some difficult situations with the schedule to try to prepare us for this potential March run,” Sovern said. “We took our lumps at various times. It hasn’t been an easy year by any means, but our kids have survived and are coming out the other side stronger for it.”
Yorkville Christian headed into the Plano Christmas Classic with a 7-7 record and lost five more times before the end of January. A 75-68 win against Kenwood, an eventual Class 4A sectional champion, on Jan. 29, Sovern said, felt like a turning point.
The Mustangs have lost just once since — a 66-45 defeat courtesy Peoria Notre Dame — and have blitzed their way through the 1A playoffs. Yorkville Christian’s average margin of victory in its six playoff games before state was just shy of 44 points. Schutt has led the way at 25.3 points per game, but the Mustangs have three other double-digit scorers in K.J. Vasser (16.4), Tyler Burrows (11.1) and David Douglas Jr. (10.2) in addition to a now healthy Brayden Long.
“As far as I’m concerned, you’re trying to compete and win every game, but at the same time, it’s the postseason record that matters,” Sovern said. “At the end of the day, your career coaching record might not look good, but whatever. It’s the playoff success that you’re trying to get your kids galvanized and ready for that run.
“We kind of hung around .500 for a while. I would say if there was one game I could point to we played Kenwood at a shootout in Chicago, and we played so well together. Everyone was as selfless as can be, and it was a huge win for our school.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism