Faith Lutheran prefers to consider what it has more than what it is lacking.
The tiny Crystal Lake private school has 77 students and a much more limited pool from which to draw athletes than any other high school in McHenry County. Yet junior Ben Boyer sees an advantage there.
“We see each other almost every second of every [school] day,” said Boyer, a 6-foot-4 forward on the Saints’ boys basketball team. “Out of 12 people in class, six of them are my teammates, so team chemistry comes from that.”
Saints first-year coach Aaron Boettjer also finds a benefit in the small population.
“[The other students] come to the games with us,” Boettjer said after Thursday’s 48-45 upset victory at Harvest Christian Academy in Elgin. “They travel on the bus to games with us. It builds a nice community. Everybody at Faith gets along, and that carries on to the court.”
There are natural factors working against Faith Lutheran building its basketball program. Players’ hometowns are spread all over the county, so getting together even for pickup games takes some planning. While larger schools have feeder programs that can get players learning the system in elementary school, Faith just hopes to get players with some decent skills.
The Saints play their home games at Immanuel Lutheran, a grade school southeast of Crystal Lake Central, and played an independent schedule this year, but that will change. Next year, Faith joins Alden-Hebron, Christian Liberty, Christian Life, Harvest Christian, Illinois Math and Science, Luther North, Keith Country Day, Mooseheart and Westminster Christian in the Northeastern Athletic Conference.
Still, the Saints are making headway. They are 7-20 going into the IHSA Class 1A Westminster Christian Regional, which tips off at 7:30 p.m. today with No. 4-seeded Harvest Christian meeting No. 5 Alden-Hebron. No. 7 Faith faces No. 2 Mooseheart at 6 p.m. Tuesday in a first-round game.
That record might not sparkle, but considering Faith won five games combined in the previous two seasons, and starts mainly juniors, it is progress.
“It’s hard. You have to find kids who want to play, and luckily we have done that for such a small school,” said junior point guard Jake Larson, the Saints’ leading scorer at 12.7 points a game. “We’ve made big steps. We’ve gotten closer together as a team, and we’re starting to play together more.”
Faith’s confidence has substantially grown. The Saints lost to Keith Country Day early in the season, then beat Keith, 69-43, this week. They also lost to Harvest Christian twice, both by double digits, before turning that around Thursday on the Lions. A-H defeated the Saints, 54-38, Friday.
“They’re much more disciplined than early in the year,” Harvest Christian coach Jeff Boldog said. “They had a lot of turnovers and they weren’t confident. Now, they’re starting to believe they can beat some teams and they’re playing really good, solid fundamental basketball.”
Boettjer jumped at the chance to coach Faith when he saw the job posted last spring. He works as regional admissions counselor for the University of Illinois-Springfield, recruiting students from Lake County to Rockford to Aurora. Boettjer grew up in Normal, played baseball at Millikin University in Decatur, then got into coaching. He spent seven years at Illinois-Springfield alongside head coach Kevin Gamble, a former NBA forward. Gamble is now on the coaching staff at Central Michigan.
“The big thing is consistency,” Faith athletic director Drew Potthoff said. “Getting kids to learn the program. Aaron does a really good job of making sure people understand their roles. We try to get the kids in summer camps and get them to be excited and believe and keep coming back out.”
Alden-Hebron (enrollment 122) has similar numbers issues, but the Giants are a more established program. Faith was started in 2004 in Marengo, then moved to Crystal Lake in 2009 with 38 students.
Boettjer credits former coach Andrew Ernst with setting up summer tournaments and camps so the Saints had plenty of games. Boettjer spent the summer as an evaluation process to see what he had. Larson is a point guard who can create for himself and others, Boyer can score inside and has seven double-doubles, guard Matt VanAntwerp is another quick player who can score, and Andrew Tieman leads the team in assists and steals.
“As a freshman, the ball went off my foot every time I put it on the floor,” Boyer said. “But you decide to work hard and work with each other. This past summer was probably the biggest leap we’ve ever taken.”
Faith is not disillusioned about Tuesday’s regional game. Mooseheart has three Sudanese players – Mangisto Deng, Akim Nyang and Makur Puou – who are 6-7 or taller.
“Win or lose, it’s going to be an awesome experience to play against a team with all five starters 6-foot or over,” VanAntwerp said. “I’m going to like it. It will push our team to get better.”
When the season ends, the Saints can view their accomplishments and look ahead toward next year, when they will have an experienced, senior-heavy lineup.
“People used to think we were just some small school that they play and get a free win,” Larson said. “But now we’re in a conference and we’re here to stay.”