Peoria Richwoods High School's football team has had great success recently, going 9-2 in each of the last three seasons. The Knights' season ended abruptly this past fall with a loss to Springfield Sacred Heat Griffin in the second round of the IHSA state playoffs. But T.J. Cole was encouraged by his team's progress.
"As a team, we grew every game. At the beginning of the year, it was pretty shaky. We weren't sure how it was going to be. With every game, we got better. We worked hard. A lot of teams might have been more athletic than us, but we played our roles and played well. I thought we all played our hearts out."
T.J. began the season playing only tight end, but over the course of the season he began to play defense also.
"I got better as the season went on. Halfway through the season, I started as a defensive end and rover. That took my game to another level. I really love playing defense and hitting people. It's a lot better to play both sides of the ball.
"At tight end, I think I can get better at everything. I think I can get better at blocking and just carrying out the plays. I tend to stop once in a while during a play."
The Peoria area is known by Illini fans for its basketball as Illinois has had great success recruiting Peoria players including incoming freshman DJ Richardson. Cole continues that rich tradition by playing basketball for his high school in addition to football.
"As for basketball, we're starting off a little slow. We're starting to get back to the normal rhythm we found this summer. I don't want to bash our team from last year because I love them all, but I think we will really be good this year. It's a team full of juniors, and we've all been playing together since last year and we got a lot of experience last year."
Just like in football, the 6'-4", 220 pounder knows he must improve individually if he and his team are to find success on the hardwood.< P>"I think I can improve my dribbling. I'm more of a shooting guard slash small forward. I think dribbling and attacking the lane would take my game to a whole other level. It would be very beneficial."
T.J. might have to decide which sport to play should college scholarships be offered to him in football and basketball.
"I'm undecided. I can tell you that I love both sports. I don't love one more than the other. It would probably depend on how my senior year goes and what colleges ask. I don't know. That's a hard question for me. Still, I honestly haven't been contacted by any schools yet. It's either because I'm still a junior or I don't know."
Illinois is definitely a school of extreme interest for Cole as he has many ties to the school and grew up an avid Illini fan.
"I'm definitely an Illinois fan. My dad went there, my brother goes there, and my sister goess there. I grew up going to the football games and going to the basketball games. I grew up always watching sports and always watching my brother and my sister playing sports.
"We've always had season tickets to Illinois. Just going to the college atmosphere and watching those games is amazing. However, I don't think growing up an Illinois fan would sway my choice as to which school I would go to in either sport though."
While some athletes are borderline academic qualifiers in college, T.J. is far from that.
"I'm pretty good academically. I try to maintain a B average. I need to improve my Spanish though."