Ask Jason Mead how Dixon’s basketball program has been built from a one-win team into a perennial 20-win team, he’ll provide a simple answer.
Changing the culture.
Off the heels of guiding the Dukes’ program to three straight 20-win seasons – highlighted by a 28-win season in 2014-15 – Mead is making the 85-mile trek east to take over at Waubonsie Valley.
And the opportunity to go from competing in the Big Northern Conference to competing in the DuPage Valley Conference is all thanks to the work his players put in.
“I guess the last five years – it’s probably been the best five years of my life,” Mead said on Monday. “I’m going to miss Dixon a lot because I met a lot of great people and not the least of which were the guys that I shared a locker room with. I got to coach some really good, talented players that were interested in changing a culture.
“The culture that we inherited – it was a losing culture, but it wasn’t just so much that we didn’t win. It was that there wasn’t a whole lot of commitment. There wasn’t a whole lot of excitement about basketball in the town. It was just kind of a negative culture and there wasn’t a whole lot of respect or anything like that.”
Led by the former Hoffman Estates assistant for the last five years, Dixon won at least 20 games in back-to-back years for the first time ever.
One year after winning the program’s first regional title since 1985-86, the 28 victories in 2014-15 established a program record – eclipsing the 25 wins from 1966-67.
In addition, a pair of Big Northern Conference titles during the last five years marked the program’s first conference title in 48 years.
“I had a group of young kids that were eighth graders and freshmen when I got there that bought in,” Mead said. “They made basketball their thing. And that doesn’t mean that they stopped playing other sports. All of them were two-sport athletes minimum, but they made basketball a priority for them and they came together. They became a cohesive group, they worked hard to change the way our culture was.”
Mead’s ability to change the culture around the Dukes’ program during the last five years makes him an ideal candidate to walk into the Warriors’ program.
The last three years under Chaz Taft saw Waubonsie Valley go from 19 victories in his first year to 10 in his second year and down to five this past season.
Despite the win totals going down each of the last three years, Mead knows interest in Warriors’ basketball is high.
“I know that I did a lot more research on this job than I did on the Dixon job when I took it,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was walking into at Dixon and if I did, I wouldn’t have said yes there. But I’m really glad that I did. In terms of the job here, I’m excited because everybody I’ve talked to said they have a lot of young talent and that the kids still love basketball.
“I know that eventhough they haven’t had a head coach, there’s 40 kids coming in for open gyms and these open gyms are at 5:30 in the morning. So they’re not trying to impress anybody. They just like basketball and I’m kind of excited about that.”
After averaging 6.92 points through the regular season as a freshman, All-DVC Honorable Mention pick Eric Cannon will be back to help lead a young group.
A.J. Hardaway and Davis Walker joined Cannon up on varsity as freshmen late in the year and junior Blake Blanzy saw time in 23 games.
Luke Gregorio, Brian Phillips, Scott Wells all will return as seniors in 2016-17 to help provide Mead’s first Waubonsie Valley group with some leadership.
But Mead knows there’s quite a bit of difference going from coaching at a school with an enrollment of 806 to one that has 2,527 students.
“That’s one of the things I looked at,” he said. “I said, ‘Holy cow. We play 16 conference games?’ And there’s no rest in there. … There’s nobody that’s bad in the DuPage Valley and that’s not hyperbole. It’s a really solid conference, so I’m excited about the challenge.”
The challenge is getting the program back to where it was in the 2000s – winning 20 games as the program won 20 games eight times in a nine-year stretch.
With time, Mead’s confident that type of success will be able to happen again at Waubonsie Valley.
“I do know if it’s going to be turned around, it’s going to be ‘we’ and it’s not going to be ‘me’ because I can’t score a point,” he said. “It’s all about the kids. High school basketball, high school sports in general are about the kids. And so I want them to have the best experience possible. I’m going to work as hard as I can, so they can have the best experience possible.”