Any time he drove to the hoop or pulled up for a shot, Kyle Ottens would stick his tongue out or tuck it into his cheek.
The Milledgeville senior’s mannerism is reminiscent of another star basketball player who did the same thing in Illinois: Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan.
Jordan accomplished things unseen before in a Bulls uniform. Ottens, like Jordan, succeeded in a Milledgeville uniform in a way no Missile ever had.
The one striking difference between the two is obvious. Jordan was as good at getting into opponents’ heads with his words as he was slashing for a layup. Ottens plays with a similar ability to take over games whenever he pleases, but he never lets anybody know how good he is through words.
“I’ve never been much of a trash talker or one who shows off too much,” Ottens said. “I just like to play the game. The biggest trash talking you can do is win.”
There’s no question where Milledgeville coach Brad Grenoble ranks Ottens in program history.
“He’s No. 1, no doubt. And it’s not because I got lucky enough to coach him,” Grenoble said. “Kyle did it the right way; he could shoot, drive inside, and simply take over games. He’s the best we’ve ever had here.”
The argument can be made that another similarity between Jordan and Ottens is their running mates. At first glance, one might think that senior Cade Schave played a role that Scottie Pippen did alongside Jordan. However, where Pippen was the No. 2 to Jordan, Ottens and Schave took turns being the No. 1 option for the Missiles.
“He’s been my best friend for as long as I can remember,” Schave said of Ottens. “We’ve played so many games together, it’s ridiculous. A lot of times, he’ll have his nights, and I’ll have mine. We know when to shoot, pass or drive.”
In grade school, Ottens and Schave would round up a few friends to play pick-up games at Ottens’ house. Schave said the two fought several times after some rough play, but their friendship has stood the test of time.
“We still do it every once in awhile, but not as much as we used to,” Ottens said. “Any time we saw someone walking home from school, we’d call them over to play. We wouldn’t call fouls, so we were hacking each other. That taught us to get stronger with the ball.”
Grenoble was the Milledgeville fresh-soph coach when Ottens and Schave entered high school, a time before the duo became stars. Instead, Grenoble recalled a game against River Ridge where Schave couldn’t catch a pass, and Ottens would dribble the ball off his shoes.
However, the clumsy moments quickly started to give way to the ball instead being dribbled through legs and swishing through the net.
“With practice comes confidence, and with confidence comes success,” Ottens said. “I never thought about developing. I just wanted to help my team win.”
“We lived in the gym. We always worked on our shots,” Schave added. “All I remember is waking up every day and going to shoot when I could.”
Ottens and Schave truly dedicated themselves to the game in the summer of 2017. The two would call Grenoble to open the Milledgeville gym so they could work on their shots, and when the coach closed up shop, the two still hoisted shots on the Millwheel Park tennis courts’ rusted rims.
“You can’t be as good as they are without putting the time in,” Grenoble said. “They put the work in, and then they’d go to AAU ball and put that time in. They’re great kids, great students and great in the community.”
Ottens took his game to a new level in his final year as a Missile. He averaged 24.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 5 assists, 4.5 steals and 1.2 blocks per game, all while helping lead Milledgeville to a program-record 24 wins and its first regional title.
The postseason accolades piled up for Ottens, as he was named to the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Class 1A second team, was tabbed a 1A second-team all-stater by the Associated Press, and was a unanimous selection to the NUIC East first team for the second year in a row.
Ottens became a starter as a sophomore, averaging 13.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.7 assist and 1.5 steals per game on his way to the NUIC East second team.
Last season, he took a huge leap forward, with averages of 19.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 3.4 steals per contest. Ottens’ skill to take over a game was on display in the regional semifinals, as he (21 points) and Schave (14 points) outscored Stockton in a 47-33 win.
“I think if Illinois high schools had a shot clock, we’d have won even more games because those are two guys who could create their own shots,” Grenoble said. “It’s pretty easy to coach when you have two all-state guys. It’s pretty special to have kids like that.”
Milledgeville finished the 2016-17 season with a 20-9 record after losing to East Dubuque in its next game, which Ottens said fueled the Missiles’ fire to win a regional crown.
Schave averaged 21.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and 1.2 blocks per game this season, earning NUIC East first-team honors and an all-state honorable mention nod from the Associated Press. Last year, the 6-foot-3 forward’s mood was much more somber than it is today.
Schave had to step away from football for good in the fall of 2016 after doctors noticed a major heart problem. Medical professionals soon cleared him to resume practicing, but after 3 weeks of grueling work to try to get into shape, Schave found out he had been misdiagnosed, and that he would need surgery to take care of the issue.
After 7 hours under the knife, Schave eventually returned to even better form.
“I was told I would probably never play basketball again,” Schave said. “Once I got into shape, which was tough, I could contain it with medicines and monitoring it all the time. I needed to get back out there. I couldn’t leave my teammates.”
In addition to being his basketball coach, Grenoble is also Schave’s uncle. Months after receiving a call from his sobbing nephew, Grenoble saw Schave’s conditioning improve daily.
“The doctor pretty much fixed him,” Grenoble said. “Last year, we would be running sprints and he would have to sit down because he’d get dizzy or heavy-footed. This year, I don’t remember one episode.”
Schave’s heart problem wasn’t the only time his senior season flashed before his eyes. He caught the flu and rolled his ankle in early January, around the same time that junior sharpshooter Blayne Kappes also missed time with an ankle injury.
A lack of health ultimately led to Milledgeville’s worst game of the season, when the Missiles suffered 52-34 defeat at Forreston on Jan. 8.
“The bus ride there, you could just tell we weren’t ready to go,” Schave said. “They really took it to us. They were more physical than us. That was definitely the turning point in our season.”
Just how bad was it that night? Milledgeville had just two first-half rebounds, and didn’t make a basket until the 5:10 mark in the second quarter. Forreston’s Brandon Schneiderman out-rebounded the Missiles 13-12 for the game, prompting Grenoble to call it the worst performance he’d seen to a reporter postgame. The responsibility to turn the season around fell to senior leaders in Ottens, Schave and Kyle Aude.
“That night I was mad, but the next day, I told them it was on them,” Grenoble said. “They knew they could be special. We got a little lazy in practice, and we took shortcuts. Those shortcuts caught up to us in the game. I told them we were either going to get back up really fast or fade really fast.”
Milledgeville started the season 9-0, and won the Oregon Thanksgiving Tournament (beating Newman, Kewanee, Rockford Christian and St. Bede in the process) for the first time in program history. After losses to Byron and Newman at the Forreston Holiday Tournament, the Missiles fell completely flat.
“In the beginning of the year, all our shots were falling, and I think we took that for granted,” Ottens said. “In that Forreston game, we realized we couldn’t shoot our way to a win. We had to step it up on the defensive end. It also made us realize we have to take every game seriously.”
The Missiles lost at Aquin on Jan. 16, prompting a switch to man-to-man defense by Grenoble. Flipping defensive strategies proved to be flipping the season’s recent script.
Milledgeville ran off 10 straight wins to finish the regular season, including a Jan. 20 home win over AFC in which Ottens broke the program scoring record. He needed just two points to pass Scott Kent, but finished with 26. Three days later, Schave hung 30 points on Forreston in a 27-point home win over the Cardinals.
While Ottens and Schave ran the show, others started to settle into roles.
“The kids knew they had to get the ball to Ottens and Schave. But we just had to get to practice,” Grenoble said. “We needed Blayne and Carson Boyer to shoot. Blayne had no issue with jacking it up, but we told Carson to be more confident and shoot. We told Jack Munz to just play D and that he didn’t have to score, but then he started shooting and hitting shots.
“Nate Rahn is really a star all his own. He can shoot from the outside, he’s a man inside, and he can play D. If he puts any effort in this summer, he’s going to be really good. And we’ll need him to be.”
Rolling into the 1A Amboy Regional, Milledgeville crushed Paw Paw in the quarterfinals and dominated AFC in the semifinals.
Ottens – like Jordan – thrived when the stage grew larger, evidenced by a performance in the regional final against Indian Creek that people in Milledgeville will talk about for decades to come.
“We knew [Indian Creek] was really good on the ball, but they had no help D,” Grenoble said. “We told Kyle to just take it to the hole. He did it a little bit in the first quarter, then he started to get hot in the second. We told Kyle at half to just take over. As a coach, you just sit back and watch like a fan.”
Ottens scored a career-high 47 points against the Timberwolves, while Schave chipped in 14 points in the 68-63 victory.
“I think it came down to confidence,” Ottens said. “I had a ton of energy in warm-ups. I had never had that much energy before a game before.”
“When he sees he’s scoring at will, I let him do his thing,” Schave said of Ottens. “He doesn’t force very many shots. I’ve seen him pull up from the volleyball line, and he’s seen me do it. It’s crazy.”
Ottens capped his high school career with 13 points, four rebounds and five assists in a 52-47 loss in the 1A Eastland Sectional semifinal to the same East Dubuque players who knocked the Missiles out of the postseason in 2017. Schave scored 14 of his team-high 16 points in the second half, nearly willing the Missiles to the Sweet 16.
Ottens ended his Milledgeville career with 1,701 career points, though Grenoble joked with him that he should’ve stopped one point short, “so it would look cooler on a plaque.”
A new chapter on the hardwood awaits Ottens, as he is still deciding between Division III Aurora University or Sauk Valley Community College. Schave already signed with the Skyhawks. No matter where he ends up, Ottens said he’s excited to see how much better he can get in another 4 years.
Kyle Ottens never showed much emotion on the court; never begging referees for calls or slapping the floor defensively. Fans who saw him play will instead have to recall the way he glided into the lane or elevated for a dagger 3.
One moment that Ottens will always remember will be when he realized all of his accomplishments and contributions to Milledgeville basketball.
“It hit me the night after we won the regional championship,” Ottens said. “After the season, I was really proud of the team. It’s crazy how fast 4 years went by, and it’s crazy to see how much the program changed.”
FYI: 3-year varsity starter for the Milledgeville basketball team. … Averaged 24.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 5 assists, 4.5 steals and 1.2 blocks as a senior. … 1st all-time in points at MHS with 1,701. … Named to the IBCA Class 1A second team, 1A all-state second team. …Unanimous selection to the NUIC East first team for the second year in a row. … Also plays baseball for the Missiles.