Wheaton North grad Hyde finds a home in backcourt for No. 1-ranked Morton College
Claire Hyde and Kaylen Evans offer distinct perspectives on the chase to play college basketball at the highest level.
Hyde, a former star at Wheaton North, bided her time on making a college decision all the way through her senior season. She held out for Division I offers, but the best she received was a couple walk-on opportunities.
Evans, who led Nazareth to third in Class 3A as a senior, did get a chance to go Division I out of college. After two years at Loyola and a coaching change, though, Evans realized a change of scenery was in order.
The two found a home this year at the junior college level. And have made beautiful music as backcourt mates at Morton College.
Hyde and Evans are the two leading scorers for a 20-0 Morton team that last week became the first in school history to be ranked No. 1 in the nation in the NJCAA Division II poll. Morton, who took second at the national tournament last season under former Montini coach Jason Nichols, takes a 40-game regular season win streak into this week.
"I would say being ranked No. 1 in the nation, it means a lot to us as a team," Evans said. "It shows how hungry we are and it motivates us. Just because we're ranked No. 1, that's not the end goal. The end goal is to win the national championship. But it's motivated us to keep going."
Hyde, who graduated from Wheaton North as its program's all-time leading scorer, waited until after her senior season to make her college choice. She discussed with her parents a couple Division I walk-on opportunities, but the thought of still having to pay for college was not ideal for a girl from a family of nine.
Nichols and his staff was persistent in their pursuit of Hyde, and he credited assistant coach Tessa Alderman for building a good relationship with Hyde. Morton pitched the idea of having Hyde play there for one year, and now she has an offer from George Washington and interest from multiple other Division I programs.
"It seemed like a great place if I didn't go Division I right away," Hyde said. "You can go to this place, get better, you're spending a lot of time with 15 other girls working to accomplish the same goal. It has honestly exceeded my expectations. The facilities, the team, the coaches - it's been awesome to see a side of basketball that I wouldn't have seen otherwise. I didn't even know what junior college basketball was until I got here and it's been awesome."
Hyde in 20 games is averaging a team-best 19.9 points, 10th in the nation, and has made 88 3-pointers, tops in the nation, at a 40.9% clip. The 5-foot-6 guard is also averaging 7.0 rebounds at the bottom of Morton's matchup zone. Hyde scored 29 points last week in a 91-49 win over Moraine Valley, running Morton's home win streak to 36 straight.
"I had some good ones at Montini that put in a lot of work, but this kid puts in more than a lot of work. She's in four times a week at 7:30 in the morning for an hour with [assistant] coach [Kevin] McManaman," Nichols said. "That kid works harder than any kid I ever coached and that says a lot because I've coached a ton of good kids. She's a worker, by far the best. If you want to mold a kid to get better, just talk to Claire Hyde. She sets the standard of you get what you put into it."
Evans played two seasons in high school at Marian Catholic and two more at Nazareth, then two seasons at college at Loyola, where she scored 32 points in 36 games.
At the end of her sophomore season she went back and forth about whether she'd stay or go, and heard rumblings that her coach could get fired. She put her name in the portal, and Loyola indeed did bring in a new coach. Evans wished to find her self again and regroup, and didn't think immediately jumping to another Division I school was the best route.
"My best choice was to come here," Evans said. "I just wanted to work on myself. That was the biggest goal. From the mental side of things, stuff on and off the court, I wasn't ready to go Division I. I needed time to focus on myself."
Two of Evans' teammates at Nazareth - Franchesca Metz and Jovanna Martinucci - were already at Morton, which helped her make the adjustment. Evans scored 30 points in a December win over Palm Beach State, 29 this month against McHenry.
"Right now I feel like I'm just getting started. My confidence is coming back for sure," Evans said. "After playing for coach Nichols, I feel like I can play for anyone. He pushes me way harder than I've been pushed in a long time."
Evans, a 5-foot-6 sophomore with two years of eligibility remaining after this one, is averaging 19.4 points and made 68 3-pointers, fourth in the country, at a 36.0% rate.
Together Hyde and Evans have helped Morton make up for the departure of Dylan Van Fleet, now at UIC, and Tadriana Heard, now at Purdue-Northwest, from last year's national runner-up. Jalyssa Carrasco, a sophomore and West Aurora product, has made 64 3s for a Morton team that is No. 1 in threes made and No. 2 nationally in points allowed per game.
"Kaylen's always been a big-time scorer and I think a little bit better with the basketball," Nichols said. "She's a dynamic scorer that has totally helped us with Claire.
"We have a wealth of experience, can defend and can shoot. Any time you have a bunch of kids with the ability to shoot you're dangerous offensively. And we are dangerous offensively."
Morton has eight regular-season games left before the Region IV Tournament at Rock Valley. Nationals are at St. Clair Community College in Port Huron, Mich. Morton's players, new and old, long to win a national title that just eluded them in 2022.
The future beyond that is undecided for Hyde and Evans, who has an offer from Division II Lewis. Both are taking it one day at a time.
"I don't know the plans the Lord has for me. My life is in His hands," Hyde said. "Honestly, it was uncomfortable coming to a new environment. I didn't know a thing about JUCO, whether it was a step in a direction that could influence the rest of my life in a different way. I'm just taking it day by day with the opportunities provided."