Moments after commending Nate Gascoigne for a "great defensive possession," Jason Mead barked at the freshman as he dived for another steal during practice Wednesday at Lancaster Gym.
Then the second-year Dixon coach stood near midcourt, at the very spot on the hardwood from which Gascoigne had picked himself up and dusted himself off. Mead extended both arms, the ball in his right hand.
With the exuberance of a child enjoying Friday morning's snowfall, Mead asked his team, "Hey! Isn't this fun?"
The tone was a 180-degree turn from the night before, when Mead called the SVM office to report yet another near-miss for his 3-23 Dukes, 53-49 to Sandwich at Lancaster Gym.
The setback marked the 10th time this season Mead's team led at half but lost.
This is uncharted territory for Mead, who played for a Hoffman Estates program that won eight regional titles in 20 years. With his degree from the University of Illinois still warm from the printer, he joined his alma mater's coaching staff as an assistant. The first year they made the Elite 8 in 2A during the last season of the two-class system.
In Dixon, as he tries to teach his underclassmen-laden squad to avoid long dry spells that have doomed them in second halves, Mead is also battling a culture.
"This is a new experience for me," Mead said. "At Dixon, as long as I've been around, it's been a tendency that, when something gets hard, you quit. That's why our numbers are so low in pretty much all of our sports."
That's why, rather than toe the water, Mead jumped in, bound and determined to turn the tide.
"I didn't really know what I was in for," Mead said. "But I figure that the best way to compete for something is to be all-in. If you're not, don't bother doing it. While I'm at Dixon, I'm going to do anything to make Dixon the best place it can be."
It's an imperfect science for both the educator – insisting that it's not OK to lose – and the players – not checking out when the wins aren't there.
"It is a fine line to walk," Mead said. "You want to do what you need to do, but you want them to come back when things are going as well as we want."
Mead never truly goes away, other than a few hours Sunday morning when he teaches Sunday school and attends church.
"It's kind of my way to decompress for the week," Mead said.
But after church, he mixes leisure and work, opening up the gym for players who want one-on-one coaching. He enjoys it, thus his players never balk at an opportunity to get in some work.
"They know that – if they do what they're supposed to do – things can be really good next year and in years to come," Mead said.
Sophomores Cal Jarrett and Matt Coffey are already 2-year starters. They're not willing to wait until the next regular season to make a statement. After all, a second season opens Monday at the 3A Rock Falls Regional. Whereas the sixth-seeded Dukes lost by 40 the first time they played No. 3 LaSalle-Peru, the last go-round saw them lose by 20. And the Cavaliers shot the lights out.
"I haven't seen [Jens] Soderholm make that many tough shots in a long time," Jarrett said.
Coffey wants to win badly for his coach.
"Oh my gosh," he said. "It would be awesome to beat L-P for him on Monday. Look at that banner up there. The last time we won a regional was … 85? 86? Coach is always talking about winning a regional and how awesome it would be."
"If we win our first game, everybody forgets our record, and they'll know we mean business," Jarrett said.