Coach Don Houston - 2014 South Side Assistant Coach

 

Coach Don Houston - 2014 South Side Assistant Coach

By PAT DISABATO pdisabato@southtownstar.com March 22, 2012 8:10PM

(Story written in 2012) Don Houston is no different than most high school coaches in having to overcome unsuspected obstacles during the school year.

Nothing, however, prepared Houston for the news he received in June. Ryan Royall, an All-Conference guard who had just completed his junior year at Hillcrest, was senselessly killed.

Another one of Houston’s players, Jayon’e Troutman, was with Royall. The two were best friends.

“You just can’t believe it,” Houston said, of went through his mind. “They’re just kids. This shouldn’t be happening. Everyone was in shock. We were all devastated by Ryan’s passing. The kids lost a teammate, a friend. It was heartbreaking.”

The tragedy could have crushed the Hawks.

Instead, it inspired them.

Hillcrest dedicated the season to Royall — and what a season it was.

Not only did they claim a share of their 24th consecutive conference championship, they earned a third-place finish in Class 3A.

Through it all, the one steadying influence was Houston, the recipient of the 2011-12 Beggars Pizza/SouthtownStar Boys Basketball Coach of the Year award.

It’s the second time in three seasons Houston has won the honor, following his win in 2010, when Hillcrest won the 3A state title.

“It means a lot to win the award,” Houston said. “I have great kids and a phenomenal coaching staff. This award isn’t just for me. It’s for the entire program and the school. This is a special place. We have special kids.”

And a special coach who has amassed a 115-33 mark through five seasons.

Houston demands maximum effort from his players, who gladly oblige.

The results speak for themselves.

“A great work ethic can get you a long way,” said Houston, who received his bachelor’s degree from Illinois State and master’s from Governors State University.

While Royall was not physically with the Hawks, Houston made sure he was there in spirit. Hillcrest had a banner made with the letters “F-I-N-A-O” — Failure Is Not An Option — in honor of Royall.

Before each game, the Hawks would touch the banner.

“It was important that we had a family atmosphere all season,” Houston said. “Every game was pretty much dedicated to Ryan. The guys weren’t just playing for themselves or the school, they were playing for Ryan. We would bring Ryan up a lot during the season, especially in tough situations.”

The Hawks finished 25-6, never losing two games in a row.

A 58-57 loss to Lemont in the final game of the regular season forced the Hawks to share the South Suburban Blue Conference with the Indians. Hillcrest, however, dusted off the disappointment of that loss to win five straight postseason games and advance to the Final Four in Peoria.

A 60-50 loss to Peoria in the 3A semifinals ended all hopes of a state championship. Peoria would earn that honor.

The Hawks, however, showed a lot of heart to bounce back Saturday to take down Springfield Lanphier 72-67 in the third-place game.

“I think that loss to Lemont was key,” said Houston, a married father of three children, Jaden (9), Jaryn (8) and Jorian (4). “The kids did a great job bouncing back, It showed that when you get complacent, things like that can happen. The kids learned from it. I’m proud of how they handled themselves and what they accomplished this season.”

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