BLOOMINGTON - When Scott Trost took over as Illinois Wesleyan basketball coach in April of 2001, he had to replace a legend in retiring coach Dennie Bridges. He also had to replace a talented class of players in Luke Kasten, John Camardella, Seth Hubbard, Laban Cross, Eric Starkey and Chris Silagi that was motoring its way toward graduation. Trost hit the recruiting trail hard in search of both quality and quantity.
He found his mark in both cases, landingn;eight playersn;who would contribute to both College Conference of Illinois andn;Wisconsin championships and NCAA Division III Tournament teams in each of then;next three seasons.
Shirk Center faithful will bid farewell today to what is undoubtedly among the top recruiting classes in school history in a 7:30 p.m. game against North Park.
It will be the final regular-season home game - and quite likely the final home game ever - for Keelan Amelianovich, Adam Dauksas, Chris Jones, Cory Jones, Jason Fisher, Mike McGraw, Matt Arnold and Steve Schweer.
"I don't even want to think about it really," Trost said Friday. "Senior Nights are hard, especially with this class. They have been special players and special people. I'm proud of what they've accomplished and happy for them, but it's sad to see them go knowing this will probably be the last time they play at Shirk."
A key to Trost's recruiting bonanza was convincing Dauksas to rebuff overtures from Division I schools Colgate and Illinois-Chicago. Dauksas has been a four-year starter at point guard and recently set the school's career assist record.
Amelianovich is 10th in IWU career scoring and third in career 3-pointers. Amelianovich was the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin Most Outstanding Player and an All-American in 2004, while Dauksas earned identical honors in 2005.
"You don't go in with a class thinking they're going to win three conference championships. You are never really sure what you've got until they get here," Trost said. "Keelan and Adam were both highly recruited kids. You knew how good they were going to be.
"But they were all good players in high school, and I knew they would be good enough to play in this league. You knew when you started to get those commitments, it had a chance to be a special class."
Amelianovich said it was obvious early on Trost had hit the recruiting jackpot.
"I could tell right away. Just playing pick-up games with these guys you could tell everyone had talent," he said. "You could tell everyone had that basketball knowledge that every player should strive to have."
Dauksas was the lone freshman to play a significant role on the 2002-03 team that featured IWU's No. 4 career scorer in Kasten.
"You sit at the end-of-the-year banquet freshman year when we had that group of seniors similar to us," Schweer said, "and you listen to them give their speeches about how you've got to enjoy every moment, that Illinois Wesleyan and the Shirk Center are really special places.
"It doesn't really register with you no matter how sincere they are. Now we're coming to the twilight of our careers, and you really feel what they were talking about. We play in front of a special group of fans with a special group of guys."
Amelianovich will be remembered among the top shooters to ever release a jump shot as a Titan.
"I feel honored playing at the Shirk Center," he said. "It was such a great experience."
Role players on a Thornwood High School team that featured current NBA player Eddy Curry, Cory and Chris Jones became inside mainstays at IWU.
"I'm thinking how fast these four years go. It seems like it went by like that," said Cory Jones. "Now it's our Senior Night and it's going to be emotional. We want to put on a show for our fans and leave memorable moments on the court."
"My basketball team has become like my extended family," Chris Jones said. "We've grown really close. We have gotten to know each other's families. They will all be my guys for life, and I think they feel the same way."
According to Dauksas, the seniors have "eight distinct, different personalities. At the same time, we respect each other for those differences and we live with them."
"They are like family to me. Whenever we're together, we're always having a good time," Schweer said. "I think that has translated into a lot of success on the court because we know each other so well."
Fisher, Arnold and McGraw have competed for playing time at the off guard the past two seasons.
"We turn into brothers," Fisher said of the lack of complaining over playing time. "You support whoever is out there, and if you're out there you try your hardest not for yourself but for your seven other brothers."
Arnold is the lone player in the Great Eight whom Trost did not see play in high school. The Bloomington, Ind., native's coach sent Trost a tape of Arnold in action.
"I didn't know one single person when I came. The first open gym I came to was when I got to school," Arnold said. "So I had to start from scratch, but all these guys are great guys and it was really easy to make friends.
"This day has come too quickly. I love all the seniors and I can't imagine a better group to go out with."
McGraw brought his perimeter shooting prowess to IWU after a stellar prep career in Litchfield.
"For me personally, getting the chance to run out to a crowd every night that, to be honest, is pretty much as big as my hometown, is quite a thrill," McGraw said. "You never quite get over that feeling. I don't know how to describe it. But when you run out to that many people cheering for you, it's an honor. It's awesome."
Along with usual starters Dauksas, Amelianovich, Cory Jones and junior Zach Freeman, Trost will give McGraw his second career start today.
"I don't think Mike has started a home game," Trost said. "He is very deserving of the opportunity to start at home. Great teams have great teammates, and Mike has been a great teammate."
The seniors' "athleticism and physical strength" stand out to Bridges, who still is the school's athletic director.
"This group I think came at the exact right time. When they became sophomores, everything else cleared out ahead of them. They were able to advance as a group and had pretty good togetherness. And they are led by a relentless competitor in Adam Dauksas."
Dauksas is IWU's unquestioned leader on the court and a key component off it.
"It seems like you have seven best friends you can always count on," he said. "We've learned to love each other for Schweer being nuts and Arnold being hilarious. Little things like that we've learned to love, and I wouldn't have it any other way."
Trost realizes it will be difficult to duplicate such an assemblage in one recruiting class.
"I hope we can. This place has the ability to attract a certain type of kid and a certain caliber of player," said the IWU coach. "I don't want to say never, but it's been a special class."