Inside a Summer Observation Tournament

For over 20 years, the Chicagoland Observation Tournament in Des Plaines, Ill. has been one of the Midwest's biggest summer girls basketball events – for elite AAU squads and high school programs alike. staffer, and Des Plaines resident, Jeff Wolf takes you for a unique look behind the scenes at this unique tournament.

DES PLAINES, Ill. – For one weekend in late July, girls basketball players from throughout the greater Chicago area, and from all corners of the Midwest, converge on Maine West High School. A mere jet plume away from the freight terminals at O'Hare International Airport, Maine West has played home to the Chicagoland Observation Tournament for the last 22 years.

An event that this year included 125 teams from six states, who played over 600 games at five different locations throughout the area over the three day period.

"Our biggest I think we had 175 teams and 135… 145 coaches," said tournament coordinator Jerry Stonequist. "It's a big draw, lets put it that way."

But this isn't your ordinary summer basketball tournament, as what began as the culmination of West's six-week summer league for Chicago-area high schools has grown to include AAU all-star squads of various levels and even high school JV teams.

There are no rankings, no brackets, and no trophies. The only individual stat kept is personal fouls. This is basketball in its purest form.

The man that brings it all together is Maine West head coach Derrill Kipp. In 25 seasons at the helm at West, Kipp, the Illinois basketball hall-of-famer, has amassed over 600 career victories, including a string of 65 in a row surrounding his 1988 state title.

"Its not only he's a top name in this area. He's a top name in the nation," said Stonequist. "He is a Nike representative. Most of the Division-I college coaches know him personally. The Nike tournament [in Schaumburg, Ill.] just ended Monday and he said he had calls today on his cell phone from 25 different D-I coaches."

Kipp's tournament includes a who's-who of Illinois high school girls basketball. Besides host Maine West, there is perennial power Fenwick of Oak Park and its archrival school, Trinity of River Forest. Marian Catholic, Buffalo Grove, Montini Catholic, Hinsdale Central, and Maine South are also among the field.

Kipp's own Illinois Hustle, as well as the Lady Lightning and Full Package (whose alums include Marquette's own Paige Fiedorowicz and Courtney Weibel) typically highlight the names on the AAU end.

The unique set up of the tournament draws all levels of college coaches to come look for talent.

"You've got three different classifications of teams in the tournament, so the college coaches are going to come and they're going to look at all kinds of things," said Stonequist.

"One of the things that the D-II and D-III coaches love about this tournament is that they can see girls that are sophomores, juniors and seniors and start plotting ahead and say, ‘maybe this girl can fit in in a couple of years in my program.'"

The benefit of coaches and talent at the tournament is cyclical. Coaches get a chance to see teams and players they would not otherwise see during the season. And with so many levels of college coach there, any player with an interest in playing beyond high school, regardless of talent level, gets a chance to be seen.

"It has [helped our girls] in the past. It definitely has," said Bobby Matz, head coach at Andrew High School in Tinley Park, Ill., who had players drawing interest from Division-II and -III coaches at the tournament as recently as last year.

"I'm sure [it's helped] because there's some different schools that maybe don't make the trip to the other places," said Mike Szydlowski, a coach for Milwaukee-area AAU program Rising Force. "The schools that go to these [big AAU tournaments] sometimes go way away [to recruit] and they're not going to recruit Wisconsin kids, where a lot of these schools will."

Two Happy Soldiers. One Big Baby.

While Kipp has the contacts and the resources, it is two active members of the Des Plaines youth sports community, Stonequist and Mary Dankowski, who work behind the scenes to keep the tournament up and running.

Stonequist has had a huge part in molding Kipp's teams over the years, as he has been both the freshman coach at West and the seventh and eighth grade coach at one of its feeder middle schools for some time. On top of that, he coordinates youth sports at the Des Plaines Park District and even delivers pizzas on Friday nights.

Dankowski also coordinates youth sports at the park district and is a special education aide at Maine West. Dankowski's daughter also coaches girls basketball at West.

Their responsibilities, which also include running the summer league, often begin as early as February, when they begin contacting teams about participating in summer basketball.

This year, they streamlined the process of assembling a roster of teams by making registration forms available on the internet. It is still a long and arduous process for two people, but past experience have shown them that's the way it has to be.

"We don't have Derrill take phone calls anymore," said Dankowski with a chuckle. "We do everything through email. Because Derrill would say, ‘I think this team called. Didn't I tell you?' and I'm like, ‘No…'"

Then there is the matter of collecting rosters from all the teams for the purposes of putting together a book for the college coaches.

"Finally after all that you have to make sure all the college coaches know about it," said Stonequist, who contacted over 400 coaches via email.

"We email most of the D-I and D-II coaches in the Midwest."

Throw in the process of contacting and scheduling referees, scorekeepers and concession staff, as well as coordinating the necessary maintenance work at West and gym space at all five tournament venues, and it becomes a full summer's work.

Not to be forgotten is the largest and most time consuming task of the summer: scheduling the 600-plus games for the tournament. The process involves late nights – Stonequist and Dankowski often don't leave Maine West until 2:00 in the morning when they make the first draft of the schedule – and multiple revisions.

"The scheduling process …that is Mary Dankowski's baby," said Stonequist.

As far as babies go, this schedule is more often the ten-pound full-termer than the premie for its parents.

The ultimate goal of each final schedule is twofold – create as many competitive matchups as possible and allow teams as much convenience as possible with regard to travel plans. And Dankowski takes both objectives very seriously.

To ensure that games are competitive, every team is asked to rates themselves on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most talented, before scheduling begins. Teams can also be matched above or below their level at their request.

"We always tell them we want to play the best they've got," said Dave Schlabach, head coach at Berlin Hiland High School in Ohio and winner of three state titles in the last four years. "We're 0-and-3 right now and that's not that unusual."

"There are always teams here that are at your level," said Matz. "You can always find good games."

"Last year we had a lot of games go to sudden death," noted Dankowski, "and you take satisfaction in knowing hopefully you gave them good basketball."

But the quality of games is not the only thing about the schedule that appeals to teams.

"They really do well to give you games when you want them," said Szydlowski. "The games I'm coaching today [Sunday, July 20] there's an hour break in between them. Sometimes [at other touranments] we've had four or five hour breaks and it makes for a long day. So its nice to have three games pretty much back-to-back and then have the rest of the day."

According to Dankowski, many teams that come in from out of town for the tournament request to have their games within specific block of time for purposes of travel and so they can allow their girls to experience summertime in the Second City.

"I think the popularity of this tournament is such because people rely on us because we can accommodate them so they can do things with their kids," she said.

"Saturday morning we always play three games and go back to the hotel and shower and then spend the whole day in Chicago," said Schlabach. "Michigan Avenue shopping and Ed Debevic's are usually the two things we do."

Stonequist offered a similar story about a coach from a small Lutheran high school in St. Louis.

"[The coach] came in and he played Friday night. He had to take his girls to Chicago so he had to get through early Friday night. He took them down to Navy Pier, Ed Debevic's and everything like that. Had a great night and then Saturday he came back and had to play an early game Saturday because he had to leave early to go to Woodfield [Mall in Schaumburg]. He came back Sunday and he says, ‘I'm exhausted, but I had such a great weekend and my girls have really appreciated this and they really love this.'

"That is where Mary's scheduling comes in."

Dankowski is more than happy to put in the extra time to accommodate teams' scheduling needs and finds that it adds to the family atmosphere that many teams are able to find at the tournament.

"You develop these relationships," she said. "You get to know people. You get to see teams grow. The coaches come back and they tell you what a season they had [the previous year].

"It's really neat because my birthday's coming up in two weeks and one coach always emails me and says, ‘My team is coming up here and don't forget my girls are going to come and sing happy birthday to you." I've known these people like three years so its really nice."

A Bittersweet Ending

However, not everything is bright and sunny in the world of the Chicagoland Observation Tournament.

This year, an unfortunate obstacle has reared itself against the tournament, as the NCAA recently designated its traditional weekend as a dead period for Division-I coaches. For the first time in it's history, the tournament will be devoid of D-I observers.

While that ultimately cost the tournament the participation of a number of AAU teams – roughly 40-50 in all – it does not seem to be a long-term threat to its existence.

Many of the AAU programs that did show were younger teams, thus not too concerned about the absence of the D-I coaches.

"We've got a long way to go [before we worry about that]," said a parent from the U-15 Valparaiso Lightning. Although with a player standing six-foot-four on the roster, it won't be long before the Division-I coaches come calling.

And count Szydlowski, who coaches 17-year-olds, among the older-age AAU coaches none too concerned with the lack of top-level college coaches.

"I think that's kind of overrated because D-I coaches know who they're after and they're after basically the same handful of kids," he said. "I think a lot of clubs have a lot more D-II, D-III, NAIA type schools [interested]."

And, of course, the presence of college coaches, while beneficial, is usually not a make-or-break condition for high school teams, who often use it as a conclusion to their summer team activities.

"For us [the tournament]'s a nice little wrap-up to our summer," said Matz. "We start with camp in early June, and you spend your time playing summer leagues and go to a team camp and then you get to this point in the summer, and after today we don't see the girls again basketball-wise until tryouts so its nice to see how far you've progressed over the summer."

The reality is that, while any prolonged absence of D-I coaches will certainly change the complexity of the tournament, the Chicagoland Observation Tournament at Maine West will remain a fixture in summer girls basketball because it has become part of these peoples' lives.

Different teams. Different places. Different reasons for coming to play. Bring it all together and you get a summer tournament unlike any other.

While the basketball scouting circuit can be a cruel, impersonal business at times, this tournament in suburban Chicago demonstrates that there are still places out there that keep it personal. And fun.

Marquette Hoops Top Stories