Boys basketball: Armoska amassed big statistics by refusing to become one
The corners of his lips nearly touch the tips of his ears as Steven Armoska recalls a December night in Chillicothe.
The Rock Falls Rockets boys basketball team put the ball in his hands that night against Illinois Valley Central, and Armoska took it from there.
He shot 31 times, making 18, including all three of his attempts from behind the arc, and he made four of five free-throw attempts.
The final tally totaled 43 points and 10 rebounds in a 69-62 win Dec. 14 for the Sauk Valley Media boys basketball player of the year
"I can't explain it," Armoska says. "My teammates kept getting me the ball, and the shots kept going in. I had 10 rebounds, I think, and pretty much all of them were on the defensive end."
It was the sort of game that the competitor in him felt should happen every night.
It was the sort of game that the dreamer in him hoped would happen some time.
It was the sort of game that, a little more than a year earlier, didn't seem like would ever happen.
At that point, he was on the sidelines, serving his time for behavior he readily admits was wrong.
Away from the court, he was playing the most challenging game of his young life. The game would decide if nights like the one in Chillicothe would happen, or if Steven Armoska's name would account for no more than a sad statistic.
"He wasn't talking to me," the Rock Falls senior's father, also named Steven Armoska, said in a phone interview. "I don't remember why, but he went a whole summer without talking to me.
"We had been so close, but he was living with his mother [Amy Bushman] then, and something had changed."
In the years before the summer of 2011, father and son had been nearly inseparable.
The father, a former football and baseball player at Sterling who once made a stab at professional baseball in the Milwaukee Brewers system, was on every sideline for his son's game.
He coached baseball teams from tee-ball through Little League. He coached junior tackle football and can remember individual games like a 6-0 loss to Morrison in the league Super Bowl after a 29-7 loss to the Mustangs earlier in the season.
"I was there coaching everything but basketball. I don't think I could handle coaching basketball. I can't lie. I've always dreamed of him playing baseball in college."
Armoska admits he wanted to follow his father's footsteps, even though his size-17 feet could never squeeze into them. He's passed his father in height – reaching 6-foot-4 to his father's 6-foot-2.
"We're both competitors," Steven says. "I remember once he told me if I didn't drop 30 points that night, I wouldn't eat. I think I scored 38. I know I am going to be the same way when my younger brother goes through. We are both going to be pushing him to have that competitive edge."
Armoska's younger brother, Brock Minkler, is 7 years old.
"He was fighting himself out there," Scott Olson said. "He'd be out on the court playing so angry. I'd pull him over after something went wrong, and he'd look like he'd want to fight me. I'd tell him, 'Look, when I get on you, it's nothing personal. I am just trying to help you get better.' But, he was playing against himself more than any one on the court."
Olson arrived at Rock Falls High School as the new basketball coach in August before Armoska's sophomore year. The tall teenager was struggling to refine his raw talent on the court.
Olson moved Armoska up to varsity as a sophomore, along with classmates Austin Babcock and Eddie Nelson.
Armoska had not picked up a basketball until he was in sixth grade, at which point he fell under the tutelage of Donnie Chappell.
Chappell, who coaches varsity baseball at Rock Falls, taught Armoska the fundamentals of the game.
"I didn't even know the rules," Armoska said.
"I am not sure he even wanted to be there," his father said. " He just did it."
When asked if the sport came naturally, Armoska shrugged his shoulders.
"I was bigger than everyone else."
"I give credit to Scott Olson," Armoska said. "I wouldn't be winning player of the year awards or anything else like that if not for him. That's not anything against coach [Brad] Bickett. He's a great coach, too, but coach Olson turned me around."
Bickett replaced Olson for Armoska's senior year, after Olson was relieved of the position last spring.
Olson entered his second year at Rock Falls with the news that his top returning player had landed in hot water during the summer. The resulting school penalty would cost him more than half the basketball season.
While Olson knew losing Armoska would hurt the team, he was more concerned for a boy clearly facing a big crossroads in his young life. Olson went to Assistant Principal Mike Berentes with the goal of setting up a meeting, which was really more of an intervention.
"He was spiraling out of control," Olson said. "I am firm believer that you can't enable a kid when they are at that point. I've tried to help kids in the past in similar spots. Some I've been able to help, and some I've lost. It's up to them to accept the challenge."
The meeting in the fall of 2011 involved Olson, Berentes, Armoska's parents and Steven. A strict contract was presented with behavior, academic, and athletic requirements clearly stated.
"He didn't go anywhere and couldn't do anything for a long time," his father said. "I know he didn't like it at first, but he knew he had to do it."
Armoska was able to practice with the team, but not play in games until Jan. 27. He also couldn't hang out with friends after school.
"We didn't make it easy on Steven," Olson said. "He had to be at every practice. He had to be giving me everything he had every day. He had to carry equipment, and he had to do it all, knowing he wasn't going to play for a long time."
"I am staying out of trouble," Armoska says. "They say it's all about who you are spending time with and who your friends are. They're right."
The future is in Armoska's hands now, like the ball was that night in Chilicothe.
Guys like Olson and his father know it won't be without temptations and challenges, but, for now, Armoska appears to be on the right track.
He has high expectations for the baseball season, for which the Rockets appear loaded.
He's left his options open to play football, basketball or baseball at the next level. He says he'd love to play all three, but knows that's not realistic.
He's is interested in studying kinesiology with hopes of becoming an athletic trainer.
"I'm thrilled," his father said. "There was a time I was very worried about him graduating. He still has a lot of work to do academically, but he's improved so much. He's happier."
"His parents deserve a lot of the credit," Olson said. "I think they put aside some differences because they wanted what was best for Steven. I think once he saw that people really cared about him, it made him want to get better.
"It was a challenge that many kids would have walked away from. Steven accepted the challenge."