When you look at the list of players that have come through the Midwest Elite girls basketball program, you wouldn’t be getting the full picture if you just went by the first and last names.
To really understand what this Chicago-area program is all about, you need to focus in on the impressive list of colleges that elite players have advanced to. The big-name women’s basketball schools like South Carolina and Tennessee? Yeah, they’re on there.
The Ivy League schools that are famous for their academics? Yep, the Elite has sent several players to Harvard. The Big 10 and ACC programs that are known for blending high-level academics and athletics? Yep, they’re well represented on the list as well.
But it doesn’t end there. Division II schools like Florida Southern, a member of the academically- and athletically-renowned Sunshine State Conference, are frequent landing spots for Midwest Elite players. Some other Elite players have landed NAIA scholarships.
“Anybody that is good enough to player on the Nike Elite Youth Basketball level is good enough to play on the college level,’’ Midwest Elite Director Ralph Gesualdo said. “We try to make our girls realize that they’re playing a different game than the boys. The boys are all shooting for the NBA. But girls have to be realistic. Sure, some might end up in the WNBA, but that’s not going to happen for everyone. It’s just as important to focus on academics so you can get a good education and get a good job after college.’’
To demonstrate his point, Gesualdo reflected on attending a game between Marquette and Northwestern a few years back. Both schools are known for outstanding academics.
“I was so proud that I don’t know how my head fit through the door,’’ Gesualdo said. “I looked out on the floor and Northwestern had four of my girls playing. Marquette also had four. I’ve been fortunate to coach a lot of girls that have been great players and great students. They’ve made me look like a better coach than I really am.’’
Gesualdo played basketball in high school, but his favorite sport was football. He played at Purdue and went on to coach the sport on the youth level. That is until he met former NBA player Bill Cartwright, who had a want and a need. Cartwright was playing for the Chicago Bulls at the time and didn’t feel his daughter, Kristin, was getting proper coaching.
Cartwright saw coaching ability in Gesualdo that transcended sports. He asked Gesualdo to coach the Midwest Elite, who were then an AAU program.
“Bill would help me coach when he was in town and he taught me a lot about the game,’’ Gesualdo said. “I would go over to his house at night and he would bring out a cooler of beer and a whiteboard. He would tutor me on the triangle offense or whatever else.’’
Gesualdo was a good student and it wasn’t long before the Midwest Elite became the first Nike EYBL program in Illinois. Since then, the program – which draws its players from Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin — has become a dominant force on the EYBL circuit.
This year shouldn’t be any different. The Elite will feature three players that are ranked in the top 100 in All-Star Girls Report’s Class of 2023 and two more players in ASGR’s top 150 for the Class of 2024.
Leading the way will be 5-foot-8 point guard Lisa Thompson (ranked No. 39), 6-5 forward Jordan Wood (No. 57) and 6-2 power forward Alyssa Latham (No. 89).
Thompson will begin the spring at a bit of a disadvantage because she has missed some practice time after spraining her MCL late in the high school season. Gesualdo said he hopes to have Thompson back on the floor in about a month.
That means Latham and Wood will be asked to step into leadership roles early in the season. Wood already has committed to Michigan State.
“Jordan is very thin, so I see her as more of a wing player,’’ Gesualdo said. “She shoots the ball well and she knows how to use her length and athletic ability.’’
Latham, who Gesualdo said has offers from Big 10 and SEC programs, will be asked to do the heavy lifting inside.
“This will be her second year on our top team and she averaged a double-double last year,’’ Gesualdo said. “She’s a mismatch problem because of her combination of size and speed. She’s quicker than she was last year because she recently lost about 15 pounds.’’
Lenee Beaumont is a 5-11 combo guard and is ranked No. 113 by ASGR. Beaumont played the point in high school and may have to be a temporary fill-in at that spot until Thompson is healthy.
“I see her as more of a No. 2 guard for us and especially in college,’’ Gesualdo said. “This is her first year with us and it usually takes a little time to get fully comfortable. But she shoots it well, she’s long and lanky and she can handle the ball.’’
Evyn Carrier is a 6-4 post player, who also is new to the program. Carrier already has committed to Western Michigan.
“I think she potentially could have drawn some Power 5 interest,’’ Gesualdo said. “But she found a comfort level with the coaches at Western Michigan. If you are fortunate enough to find that, then you are lucky.’’
Two players from the 2024 class factor heavily into the Elite’s plans for this spring and summer.
McKenna Johnson is ranked No. 73 in her class by ASGR and is drawing attention from Big 10 programs. She’s a 5-9 combo guard, who also could get time at the point until Thompson is fully healthy.
“I see her has more of a wing,’’ Gesualdo said. “I really think she’s going to blow up this summer and get on the national radar. She’s very unassuming and she just loves to play basketball.’’
Brooke Carlson (ranked No. 143) is 5-8 and she also will get some time at point guard.
“I think she’ll really pop up on the scene this year,’’ Gesualdo said. “She was kind of tentative last year. But I can see that she’s more comfortable now. She’s not afraid of anything.’’
Speaking of tentative, that’s the approach Gesualdo is taking with Hayven Smith, a member of the Class of 2025. She’s a 6-7 center and is ranked No. 192 in her class. Smith will begin the season on the 16-and-under team.
“There’s no doubt she’s going to be on our top team at some point this summer,’’ Gesualdo said. “I mean, it’s hard for me not to just put her on the top team now because of her size and potential. But she needs touches and she needs to dominate and find a comfort level. We’ll let her find that and we’ll know when it’s time to move her up.’’