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Northwestern basketball: Cleveland big men’s Big Ten Team

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Gavin Skelly and Dererk Pardon hail from The 216. We talked with their high school coaches to uncover their stories.

NCAA Basketball: ACC/Big Ten Challenge-Wake Forest vs Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

At every opportunity, Northwestern Vice President for Athletics & Recreation Jim Phillips uses the phrase “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” to describe Northwestern. We constantly see the slogan on signage, in advertising, and on NU swag. However, two men’s basketball players have helped to evangelize the purple in another Midwestern city: Cleveland. Many folks in LeBron’s kingdom have become NU followers due to Dererk Pardon and Gavin Skelly, two kids that developed their game playing high school hoops in Greater Cleveland.

Although both journeyed from the North Coast to the North Shore, they took different paths to wind up on the NU campus. One came from Cleveland’s east side, the other from the west side; one played at a public school, the other private; and one came from the city, the other from the suburbs. This is a look into their high school days and how they have connected Chicago and Cleveland through Wildcat basketball.

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Northwestern Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Villa Angela-St. Joseph High School is located in Collinwood, a working class neighborhood on the eastern edge of Cleveland. St. Joseph High School, founded in 1950, once had over 2,000 students. It became an athletic powerhouse, producing legends such as Clark Kellogg, Desmond Howard, and the Golic Brothers (Bob and Mike). The neighborhood, which thrived on the back of its rail yards and heavy industry, began struggling in the 1970s, and by the late 1980s enrollment at St. Joseph had declined drastically. In 1990, the all-male St. Joes merged with the all-girls Villa Angela Academy. Enrollment remained a problem, and by 2010 the future of the school was in doubt. Enrollment had fallen to 265, and VASJ was in danger of folding.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the school’s future, Dererk Pardon entered VASJ as a freshman in 2011. “He was a chubby kid,” recalls Babe Kwasniak, head VASJ boys basketball coach. Football was originally his main sport, but it became obvious that he had a great instinct for hoops.

“That second “R” in his name stands for ‘extra rebound’” Kwasniak said. Pardon earned the nickname “The Octopus” due to his wingspan and knack for rebounding, which he developed at VASJ. By his sophomore year, he was on the varsity squad, which went on an incredible three-year run in the OHSAA tournament. The Vikings won the state championship in Pardon’s sophomore season, made the Final Four in his junior year and then won the state championship again at Value City Arena, home of the Ohio State Buckeyes, in 2015.

Despite Pardon’s physical abilities, Kwasniak saw something even more valuable in his big man. “Dererk was our leader,” he said. “Of all the attributes that he brings, leadership is his most important.” Kwasniak, a graduate of VASJ who attended and played basketball at West Point, believes that Pardon learned leadership at home; Pardon’s father was in the military. That leadership was crucial to VASJ’s title runs. “When your coach is your best leader, it won’t be as good as when a player is your best leader,” Kwasniak said.

Despite Pardon’s skills and his team’s accomplishments, he flew under the recruiting radar. Classmate Carlton Bragg was the more sought-after recruit on the VASJ team, attracting offers from many traditional powerhouses. The five-star power forward eventually chose Kansas over Illinois and Kentucky. Pardon was generally considered to be the “Robin” to Bragg’s “Batman.”

Fortunately for Wildcat fans, Kwasniak had a long relationship with Chris Collins. Like Kwasniak, legendary Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski attended and played basketball at West Point. He also served as head coach at Army for five years before taking the Duke job. Coach K has remained in contact with the Army basketball program, and invited Kwasniak to work at his basketball camp. There Kwasniak met and formed a friendship with Collins, who played and coached at Duke under Krzyzewski. He told Collins about Pardon, and Collins was very impressed. He made the offer, which Pardon accepted at the end of his junior year.

Other schools interested in Pardon included Pitt, Dayton, and Xavier. Conspicuously absent from that list was Ohio State. “If OSU had offered him, he would have gone there for sure,” Kwasniak said. Kwasniak and his current VASJ team traveled last month to watch the Wildcats beat the Buckeyes in Columbus for the first time in 40 years. The fact that the game happened at Value City Arena, the site of so much VASJ success, made the experience even sweeter for the Vikings. Kwasniak and his kids were among the few in the crowd not surprised by the Wildcat win. “We always knew what we had in him,” Kwasniak said.

The basketball program’s success in the early 2010s helped VASJ stem the loss of enrollment. The school has grown in recent years, and the future is looking stable. It is now the fastest growing private school in Ohio. Coach Kwasniak credits Pardon, his teammates, and their parents for helping turn around the school. He remains in close contact with Pardon and is thrilled with his success. He’s especially proud that Pardon is using his leadership skills in Evanston. “When Collins says Dererk is their leader, that means the world to me.”

Skelly’s story offers a contrast to Pardon’s. He grew up and attended public school in the outer western suburb of Westlake, an affluent community. While Collinwood and other Cleveland neighborhoods declined in population, Westlake’s nearly doubled between 1970 and 2000. Housing developments attracted upscale retail shopping and many of the west side’s professionals. Although a popular home for many of Cleveland’s pro athletes, Westlake High School is not known for a strong athletic tradition. One of the better known athletic alumni is Sam Valenzisi, the kicker for Northwestern’s fabled 1995 Rose Bowl team. VASJ competes in the Catholic North Coast League and regularly plays independent athletic powers like St. Edward and St. Ignatius. Westlake, on the other hand, plays in the Southwestern Conference, composed primarily of outer ring suburban public schools.

Skelly grew quickly as a child, and by second grade was taller than some of the staff members at his grade school. His height pointed him towards basketball. Shawn Hood, a member of the legendary 1986 Cleveland State Sweet Sixteen team, took over as head coach at Westlake before Skelly’s sophomore year. He was impressed with Skelly’s skill set. “I immediately thought Big Ten,” said Hood, who served as an assistant coach at Wisconsin from 1994 to 2001. “These were the guys we wanted... skilled forwards that can step up,” Hood, who worked under Dick Bennett in Madison, adds.

Hood took an unconventional approach in developing Skelly. Due to his height, Skelly could have been a dominant center in the SWC, but that’s not where his head coach put him.

“I didn’t play him in the block,” Hood said. “I felt he could play in the Big Ten if I could continue to develop his skills.” Under Hood, Skelly became one of the best players in Northeast Ohio. Like Pardon at VASJ, he made an impression on his teammates. “He was a barrel of laughs,” said Hood. Although jovial and fun in the locker room, Skelly instilled a strong work ethic in his teammates. “When Gavin was here, I never had to cut practice down. We made our practices challenging, and he liked it.”

Like Pardon, Skelly did not draw scholarship offers from the tradition college basketball powers. The caliber of play in the SWC may have been a factor. Boston College and a number of mid-major programs showed interest, but he decided to become part of Chris Collins’ first NU recruiting class in 2014. “He and his family did a smart thing,” said Hood, “As soon as NU offered, he jumped on it.”

Thanks to Pardon and Skelly, many high school hoops fans around Cleveland have noticed NU’s success this year. Eric Flannery, two-time state champion head coach at St. Edward High School, is among these. Flannery, who has coached numerous Division I players at St. Edward, saw both of them play in high school. “I felt that both Dererk and Gavin were two of the biggest ‘sleepers’ in Greater Cleveland,” Flannery said. “They were both bigs with a high skill set that I thought had much room for growth, I felt Northwestern got a steal with both guys; they are a big reason NU is where they are today."

Mark “Munch” Bishop, who hosts a daily radio show on ESPN Cleveland, said this when asked if he’s surprised about the duo’s success: “Not at all! Pardon is from the great VASJ system, and you could see in high school that Skelly would be special.” Bishop was so impressed that he made Skelly the subject of a trivia question on his show.

Not surprisingly, Kwasniak and Hood are among NU’s biggest fans in Cleveland. Like VASJ, the Westlake basketball team took a trip to see the Wildcats’ recent win over the Buckeyes. In fact, the Westlake girls varsity team came along too, as did dozens of Westlake fans.

Both coaches have a unique insight into the challenge facing Northwestern. Both played Division I college basketball at a school which had never made the NCAA tournament. Despite winning multiple state championships in high school, Kwasniak was unable to reach the NCAAs while at Army. To this day, West Point remains one of the schools never to be part of the tournament.

Hood enrolled at Cleveland State, an unknown basketball program at the time. He was part of then-CSU coach Kevin Mackey’s turnaround plan, which was based on a “run and stun” fast pace. The Vikings achieved their first win over a major conference team on December 9, 1984, a 66-54 home win against Northwestern. The following season they recorded a much more notable Big Ten win: They beat Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. That win made CSU the Cinderella team of the tournament and propelled them to a Sweet 16 appearance.

Shawn Hood
Mike Deneen

Despite a 27-3 regular season record in 1985-86, CSU did not have an automatic bid to the NCAAs. “Selection Day is an experience like nothing else,” recalled Hood. “I know the anticipation. My team had to fight all season just to think to be considered. I think Northwestern will have to do the same.” CSU got an at-large bid and a ticket to Syracuse to play the Hoosiers. At a time when LeBron was still in diapers, their win electrified the commuter school and Cleveland sports fans in general. The team became a legend in school history, and is still remembered fondly around town.

“I hope that for them,” Hood said of Northwestern.

If Northwestern’s name is finally called this year, don’t be surprised if you hear cheers coming from the North Coast of Lake Erie.