It was 1997 and Billy Pitcher, a Normal Community High School junior, was so close to the court at Auburn Hills, Mich., he could almost touch it. Unfolding before him was a first-round game of the NCAA Basketball Tournament.
He watched as Illinois State battled Iowa State, ultimately losing. Pitcher felt like a winner. Sitting next to his father, longtime WJBC Radio executive Red Pitcher, he was certain he had discovered his life path.
“I was like, ‘This is what I want to do for a living. This is awesome,’ ” Pitcher said Tuesday.
He wanted to write sports or talk sports or both. A media career was his plan.
Upon graduating from NCHS in 1998, Pitcher went to Southern Illinois because of its communications program. He left with a business degree instead.
“I could teach business and coach basketball,” Pitcher explained.
He’s doing both at Lake Zurich High School. Five years into a challenging rebuild of the basketball program, media types are talking to him, writing about his team.
He made the right choice.
Tuesday night, Lake Zurich took a 12-2 record into a North Suburban Conference game with Class 4A No. 1-ranked Stevenson and Villanova recruit Jalen Brunson.
It’s a long way from 3-24, the record the year before Pitcher arrived.
The Bears went 7-19 his first season with a number of close losses. The young coach — 29 at the time — had to be patient.
“The big thing was trying to keep everyone on board and stay positive,” Pitcher said. “You have an idea and a vision for the program, but we just didn’t have the talent and we didn’t have enough repetition in place to validate what we were trying to do.”
The record jumped to 15-16 in years two and three, then 19-13 last year. Included was a six-game win streak prior to a loss in the regional finals. With three junior starters, validation was getting closer.
It came last week at the Pekin Holiday Tournament. Seeded first, Lake Zurich beat Peoria Richwoods, Springfield Lanphier, Pekin on its home court and, in the finals, Plainfield East and Illinois recruit Aaron Jordan.
“It was great,” Pitcher said. “A lot of friends and family came over. It validated a lot of things we’ve been doing. It was fun and it was a great challenge.”
Pitcher played basketball at NCHS under Ron Rose, now coach at Illinois Wesleyan. He also played at SIU, though not with the men’s team.
A fraternity brother was dating a member of the Salukis women’s team, which was looking for guys to scrimmage against in practice. Pitcher volunteered.
“It was cool,” he said. “Bruce Weber and the guys (team) would be coming on next or before us. I made good connections. It all worked out.”
Pitcher was an assistant coach for six years at Libertyville before landing the Lake Zurich job. He understood the challenge. Like Lake Zurich, Libertyville plays in the North Suburban with the likes of Stevenson, Zion-Benton, Gurnee Warren and Lake Forest, currently 14-0 and No. 5 in 4A.
“There’s no night off,” Pitcher said.
He doesn't mind. Coaching is his calling.
Rose sensed it years ago.
"Billy was a lot of fun to coach. In fact, he was my student assistant one year,” Rose said. “He was always a gym rat. He loved to play. It didn't surprise me at all when Billy chose to be a teacher and a coach."
Now 34, he’s also a husband and father of two daughters (6 and 9). He's making news rather than reporting it.
He made the right choice.