by Mike Ellis
When Liam Lyman of Clarendon Hills made the decision to attend Benet Academy after graduating from Clarendon Hills Middle School (CHMS), he was seeking the opportunity to play basketball for an established program under a renowned head coach.
Little did he know that as a junior, he would be starting on a team playing in the IHSA class 4A state championship game.
Lyman, whose father walked on the basketball team at Northern Illinois University, began playing basketball when he was five or six years old, and started travel ball in third grade.
“I’ve been basically playing basketball my whole life,” he said.
Lyman said he played other sports growing up, but enjoyed basketball the most, and thus, decided to continue with it.
“I’ve always really loved the game, and I wanted to get better,” he said.
After playing on his dad’s travel team, Lyman received his first taste of representing his school on the CHMS squad in seventh and eighth grade.
“It was a really cool experience to play for my school,” he said. “I had never done it before, but it was really fun.”
Upon graduating from CHMS, Lyman said basketball was a significant factor in his decision to attend Benet.
“The program that coach [Gene] Heidkamp has set up—he’s had a lot of great players,” he said, adding that he was also impressed with the school’s academic offerings.
During his sophomore year, Lyman practiced with the varsity team, and the following year, he earned the opportunity to play at the varsity level.
He said the adjustment was substantial, having to grow accustomed to five talented players on the floor all the time, as opposed to just a few at the lower levels.
“I knew that he was a tough, hard-nosed kid that could shoot the ball,” Heidkamp said.
Entering the 2015-16 season, expectations were muted for the Redwings, having recently graduated standout big men Sean O’Mara (2014) and Frank Kaminsky (2011), who acquired national prominence for his starring role on the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team, and now plays for the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets.
“Outside of our team, a lot of people didn’t think we were going to be that good,” Lyman said. “We lost our leading scorer. ... But we really came together, and we had a lot of guys that wanted to come out and play.”
After losing just once in the regular season, Benet entered the state tournament as the top seed in its sectional.
As expected, the Redwings won their regional, and then reached the sectional final, following a 60-43 win over Hinsdale South.
Lyman said the single-elimination nature of the tournament was an adjustment, but felt that Heidkamp readied him and his teammates to be successful each game.
“Coach Heidkamp got us really prepared for that,” he said. ... “It all happened so fast. You’ve just got to focus on one game at a time, and hope you can pull each one out.”
In the sectional final against York High School, Lyman recalled the Dukes rallying to level the score in the fourth quarter, before he buried a crucial three-pointer that reestablished the lead and momentum for Benet. The Redwings went on to win that game, 61-55.
After defeating Joliet West in the super-sectional, Benet prepared to square off with perennial powerhouse Simeon Career Academy.
When you think of Simeon, basketball is likely the first image that comes to mind.
Between 2010 and 2013, Simeon’s boys basketball squad claimed four consecutive IHSA class 4A state championships, led by star forward Jabari Parker, who now plays for the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks.
“Growing up, you see Simeon with Derrick Rose and Jabari Parker, and suddenly, you’re playing [their school] in the semifinals,” Lyman said.
But when Benet faced the Wolverines last spring in the state semifinals, they were just another obstacle that stood in the way of this team’s unexpected pursuit of a championship.
“Going into that game, no one gave us a chance; but I think everyone on our team knew that we had a chance,” Lyman said. “We had been having a really good season, and we have the best coach in the state. ... We knew that we could play with everybody.”
The Redwings’ confidence paid off, as they stunned Simeon, 49-48, to advance to the championship game.
Benet’s drive for a championship ultimately came up six points short in the title game, falling to Curie, 65-59, but Lyman said that loss has fueled returning players’ desire this season.
“We know what it takes to get to the biggest stage in high-school basketball,” he said. “If we could get back there, it would really mean a lot to us. If we can play the type of basketball that we’re capable of, and do the things that we need to do, we definitely have a chance to do it again.”
Standing 6’4”, Lyman is a forward that primarily plays on the wing. He is noteworthy for his perimeter shooting ability, but said he has improved his defense, rebounding, playmaking and leadership skills while at Benet.
As a senior, Lyman’s role has evolved. The fifth-leading scorer on last year’s squad, he is now second on his team in scoring, as well as the leading rebounder.
“We’re relying on him for more this season,” Heidkamp said.
This year, Benet won its Thanksgiving tournament, while placing second to Simeon at the prestigious Pontiac Holiday Tournament.
Lyman said the Redwings are now focused on winning their conference, and hope they can make a similar run in the state tournament, indicating that Wheaton-Warrenville South and Naperville North could pose stiff tests within their sectional.
After graduating, Lyman intends to continue his playing career, and has currently received offers from a pair of Division II schools, Michigan Tech and Malone University in Ohio.
“I think he’s going to have a successful career,” Heidkamp said. ... “He definitely will be a college basketball player.”
Reflecting back on his decision to attend Benet, Lyman said his experience has “exceeded expectations.”
“It’s something I’ll never forget—playing basketball at Benet—and probably one of the greatest decisions I’ll ever make in my life.”