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Good things come in small packages at Hinsdale Adventist

02/11/2014, 10:15am CST
By George M. Wilcox | gwilcox@pioneerlocal.com | @geomwilcox

Hinsdale Adventist offers area athletes a chance to play prep sports while observing their faith.

Coach Joshua Alabata instructs his Hinsdale Adventist boys basketball team before tip-off against New Jerusalem Baptist.

Hinsdale Central isn’t the only successful high school boys basketball program in town.

Hinsdale Adventist Academy, a small private school near Veeck Park, completed its basketball season Saturday. 

HAA is an associate member of the IHSA and handles its own scheduling to adhere to the school’s religious principles. As a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Christian Church, HAA observes the Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.

The school does not have to follow IHSA rules regarding number of games or tournaments played during the season.

The Hurricanes wrapped up a 11-7 season after going 1-4 in their season-ending Cardinal Classic at Andrews University in Berrien Heights, Mich. The tournament featured nearly a dozen Adventist schools from around the country in large-school and small-school divisions. HAA lost Monterey Bay (Calif.) 54-35 in its large-school finale.

The school may not belong to the IHSA, but that doesn’t mean the players enjoy the game any less.

Adventist leading scorer Justis McNeal is in his second tour with the team. He played last season at Downers Grove North as a junior, after spending his freshman and sophomore seasons at HAA. 

“I love watching him play; that’s one of my favorite things,” said Cassandra McNeal, Justis’ mother. “It will be sad when he graduates, but I’m excited about what lies ahead.”

The Woodridge resident, who scored a career-high 32 points earlier this season, registered 24 points in a 63-57 victory over New Jerusalem Baptist of Chicago on Jan. 29.

The 5-foot-9 guard played for Team Ice Elite, an AAU club out of Decatur, in the offseason and hopes to play in college. 

“One thing about basketball is it’s something that has always been my first love,” Justis McNeal said. “It also helps me have fun off the court. Coming here, hanging out with my friends, I like that.”

HAA’s 230-seat gymnasium includes seating only on one side of the gym, in the balcony. Because of the sloap of the stands, fans have views of only the far side of the court, which is smaller than regulation size. Folding chairs form the bench, while a scorer’s table is set up on a stage at mid-court. The gym has only one scoreboard, so coach Joshua Alabata instructs his players to count down out loud the remaining seconds when the Hurricanes attempt a shot before the buzzer.

Banners from each senior class going back to 1998 hang from the ceiling. The banner for the Class of 2003, for example, features a picture from each of the 19 members of the class and, like all the others, includes a motto and a bible verse.

The Hurricanes usually play Monday through Thursday. Admission is free for home games, and there is no student section, no pep band, no public-address announcer and no cheerleaders. To save money, there are usually two game officials instead of the usual three.

HAA plays in the Metropolitan Prep Conference, where team like Islamic Foundation, College Prep School of America, Waldorf, Catalyst Maria and Universal are members of the IHSA. But if the Hurricanes joined the IHSA, there would be the possibility they would be required to play Friday night playoff games. Alabata said he would not be able to field a team for Friday night games.

One HAA coach said Adventist high schools in other states usually play regular season games and then forfeit in the playoffs. 

Alabata, 27, graduated from both HAA and Andrews, where he received a business degree. After college he entered the business field, but returned to his alma mater as a volunteer coach. He’s coached the boys basketball team at least three years and took over as athletic director a year ago. He is a physical education and health teacher for all grade levels at HAA, which includes preschool through senior year in high school.

The high school offers girls volleyball, boys soccer and boys and girls basketball. The middle school teams are called the Storm.

“Especially with the kids, I felt this is where I wanted to be for the time being — mentoring and helping out, especially with some of these high school kids,” said Alabata, a Westmont native.

High school enrollment is 98 students and there are 200 students from preschool to eighth grade. The elementary school will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year. This year’s senior class includes 17 students, according to assistant principal and history teacher Thomas Dunham of Hinsdale.

“We were established in 1914 as a school for employees of the Adventist Hinsdale Hospital and local adventist families,” principal Robert Jackson said.

HAA has partnered with Hinsdale Hospital over the last three years to offer a certified nursing assistants program to its high school students. One of Alabata’s players, senior Nate Leon of Aurora, completed the program last year. Dunham’s son, David, is in the CNA program this year. 

HAA graduates go on to attend mainstream universities, Adventist colleges and the College of DuPage. 

Alex Bokich, a mortgage banker with an office in Skokie, has sent his kids to HAA and to Hinsdale Central. Three of them played sport sat HAA, but his oldest son Christian graduated from Hinsdale Central in May after pitching his senior year for the Devils’ baseball team. 

Christian Bokich attended Central as a freshman, then transferred to HAA after one year. He played basketball for the Hurricanes and for the Downers Grove Longshots travel baseball team during the summer. But Hinsdale Central baseball players encouraged him to return to the Red Devils since HAA does not have a team. Bokich is a freshman pitcher this spring at Miami, Ohio.

Alex Bokich was a volunteer coach for the Storm’s eighth-grade girls basketball team, where his seventh-grade daughter Madeleine is a point guard. 

“We’ll see [where she goes to high school],” Bokich said by phone from the Cardinal Classic. “We are dedictated to HAA because of our faith. I think they have nice basketball and volleyball programs. We may stay there.”

His younger son, 9-year-old Gabriel Bokich, is following a path similar to Christian Bokich’s. Gabriel Bokich was an all-star with Harvester Park Little League in Burr Ridge last summer and recently made one of the Longshots’ 9U travel teams for this summer. 

Alex Bokich said that travel teams will make scheduling accommodations for his talented children since the Burr Ridge family attends church services from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. every Saturday.

“When Christian tried out for the Longshots and we realized that it was over, the first [request] I made was that he could not make it Saturday mornings,” Alex Bokich said. “They said, ‘Oh, no problem.’ ”

Regardless of his faith, Alex Bokich faces the same challenges other fathers confront with athletically-gifted kids.

“As a dad or a mom, you have to evaluate realistically if your kids are going to the next level,” he said. “You do not want to be Tiger Woods’ dad and coach your kids to the nth degree.”

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