Former Batavia players reflect on Coach Roberts' impact
Batavia coach Jim Roberts acknowledges the crowd after receiving a plaque commemorating his induction into the Illinois basketball Hall of Fame.
Rick West | Staff Photographer
I barely recognize Batavia High School these days.
The school's looks have changed dramatically over the past few years with the addition of a state-of-the-art field house, expansion of parking lots, and several new-look entrances.
For a while there, I thought the Windmill City had changed its moniker to "Under Construction."
Last year, longtime Bulldogs football coach/athletic director Mike Gaspari announced his retirement from both positions although he remained involved as an offensive coordinator on new head coach Dennis Piron's staff this past fall.
Dave Andrews, a Batavia resident, took over as the Bulldogs' athletic director and hired Kevin Jensen to replace Tim DeBruycker as girls varsity basketball coach after DeBruycker's resignation.
A little more than a week ago, another huge change took place at Batavia with the announcement of Jim Roberts' retirement as boys' varsity basketball coach.
Roberts, who guided his alma mater to 455 victories during an illustrious 27-year career as head coach, decided to step away from a game he loves to spend more time with a wife he loves.
My initial reaction to the news was that it was a bit of a surprise.
Upon further review, however, I probably should have this coming considering that Roberts' wife, Sylvia, has experienced health problems the last couple years.
My next reaction was that I wanted to find out a little more about Roberts from some of his former players.
"Coach Roberts has done so much for the players playing under him," said Nick Fruendt, the school's second all-time leading scorer (to former ABA/NBA great Dan Issel) who recently wrapped up his collegiate career at Northwestern.
"He had a huge influence on my development," added Fruendt, who helped lead Batavia to an 88-23 record during his much-heralded 4-year varsity career.
Fruendt has many fond memories that include come-from-behind victories, pressure-packed Night of Hoops games, and a sectional championship appearance, but his favorite moments occurred during the "off-season."
"What I remember best were the trips we made during the summer," said Fruendt. "We'd be in a van with eight or nine guys and he'd drop us off at Bloom or Hillcrest and we'd play, play, and play.
"All of the stuff we did in the summer and fall helped us prepare for the opportunities we had to play against great competition during the season."
Ricky Clopton, a 3-year varsity starter and member of Roberts' last winning team at Batavia in 2009-10 (18-9), also remembers those summer visits around Chicagoland.
"As a sophomore, he took me and Elliott Vaughn to play against probably 100 other kids," said Clopton. "At the time, Elliott was a bright-eyed freshman. We didn't win a game, and I'm not even sure if either us of scored a point. Now I look back and understand that Coach (Roberts) was testing us physically and mentally."
Clopton, now a sophomore at Loras College, credited Roberts for molding him into the person he is today.
"He personally helped me a lot with my maturity," said Clopton. "I was kind of a wild child, and I thank him for making me grow up. Besides my family, he has been one of the biggest role models in my life.
"I was talking with my parents the other day about just how lucky I've been to play for somebody like Coach. I truly feel that Batavia is one of the top five basketball programs in the state of Illinois, and that's all because of Coach. He built that place."
For Clopton, who noted that Roberts is known for his 1-liners, one game will always stand out above the others.
"I'll never forget our double-overtime game against Simeon at Night of Hoops my sophomore year," said Clopton. "There were people standing in the aisles and it was so hot in that gym. It was an awesome experience."
Whether it was visiting with older fans in nursing homes or being introduced to former players, Fruendt, Clopton and countless other Bulldogs learned as much about life's lessons as they did about basketball.
"He helped me with the recruiting process," said Fruendt. "He told me never to have a big head, to appreciate the guys that came before me, and to set a good example for the younger guys.
"I really enjoyed playing for him," added Fruendt, who will graduate from Northwestern in June. "He is truly a selfless guy. I talked to him on a monthly basis, and he came to our Senior Night game at Northwestern."
Last week, it was old school meet new school, as Roberts received numerous congratulatory messages on Facebook.
Here's a sampling of some of the messages sent by current/former players and others:
"I can never express what we owe this man," said Corey Williams, who helped lead Batavia to the state quarterfinals in 1991. "Coach was Batavia basketball. He will truly be missed. He is a big part of who I am today and I can't thank him enough."
"People used to ask why I played for Batavia even though I didn't get much playing time," said Joshua Boyd. "I always say it was because it was an experience I couldn't have gotten anywhere else. Being on the Batavia basketball team under Coach Roberts is an experience that I'll never forget. I loved it. The atmosphere, the traditions, the family that the team was, it was all worth it. He taught me a lot about earning respect on and off the court. His humility and care for others is amazing. Thank you, Coach, for all you've shown and taught us."
"Coach, thanks for making us believe in ourselves," said Scott Clark. "I now try to imitate you as I coach my 7-year-old son's team."
"It is pretty amazing how much he really cared about helping us not only become better basketball players but better human beings as well," said Jason Scharlow. "I don't think I could ever put into words how much I appreciate what he has done for me over the years and I wish him nothing but the best."
"(Coach) was such an influence, on and off the court," said Elliott Vaughn. "He taught me more about being a decent and humble human being."
"It truly was an honor to be able to call him Coach for the past two years and to be one of the captains on that team," said junior guard Mike Rueffer.
"What an amazing teacher, coach, and human being," said Nick Johnson. "Like a lot of guys, he had a big impact on my life. 'Eye balls, eye balls.'"
"His passion for the program and the community will have an everlasting impact," said Rob Roskoskey. "I hope the next time a Batavia basketball game is played, it will be on "Jim Roberts Court."
"I've been in the area since the early '90s back when Corey Williams and Lamar Justice were there (at Batavia)," said former Geneva basketball player and current St. Charles North sophomore coach Sean Masoncup. "Coach has been a huge influence on me since then. The game lost a living legend for sure."
"It's a shame he will never see the nice comments because he hates technology so much," said Jake Pollack. "His most important lesson was his emphasis on communication."
Fortunately, Pollack was wrong on the first count.
"Coach and I thank you for the kind words," said Sylvia Roberts. "A lot of memories and smiles are coming to him even more now. Now maybe he'll let me call him 'Jim.'"
It will be even more difficult to recognize Batavia without Coach Roberts on the sideline.
You can reach Craig Brueske at firstname.lastname@example.org
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