By VINCE PELUSO
ASHTABULA TOWNSHIP —
Think back to when you were a teenager. What was your did you love most in the world? Maybe it was your first car. Maybe it was your high school boyfriend or girlfriend. Or, maybe it was playing a sport.
Now, imagine, through no fault of your own, that was taken away from you.
That was the situation Edgewood junior Eli Kalil found himself in over the past year and a half.
It’s been a long and frustrating journey for the 6-foot-3 Warrior, who prior to this season, hadn’t played in high school basketball game since his freshman season...
After playing his freshman season on the Lakeside Dragons JV basketball team, Kalil made the determination Lakeside wasn’t the place for him, opting instead to transfer to Edgewood, under the impression he would be allowed to play right away.
That turned out to not be the case and he was forced to sit out his sophomore year because of OHSAA transfer rules.
“The year he sat out it was kinda hard cuz I wanted him to come around and do things,” Edgewood coach John Bowler said, “but it was kind of hard on him because he didn’t want to come around too much cuz he missed it so much. Playing at the YMCA and playing at the rec center is nowhere near playing varsity. The intensity is not there. The defense is not there.
“But I know he played, I know he lifted weights and that really helped a lot.”
For Kalil, adjusting to the speed of the game was one of the toughest things.
“It was hard to adjust to the speed of the game, not a lot of people realize til you sit out that year that the speed of the game really changes,” he said. “Especially from playing JV my freshman year, sitting out the whole sophomore year then having to go right into varsity action, it’s a whole different speed. It changes.”
So, Kalil spent his year playing as much as he can whether it was at the local YMCA or a playground, constantly getting his hands on a basketball.
When he wasn’t playing, he was lifting weights, working to strengthen his body and get ready for the speed and physicality of the varsity schedule that awaited him.
Over that time, though, Kalil was having migraines and another road block presented itself on his return to the hardwood...
When Kalil went to the doctor, it was discovered that he had a small hole in his heart and surgery was required.
“They were trying to solve my migraines with a PFO heart-closure surgery and they closed a small hole in the heart which they believed could solve those,” he said of the procedure he underwent in August. “It wasn’t a serious heart surgery, it was about a month recovery to get back on the floor. It was a little tough to walk and get my lateral movement back, so that was a little bit different.”
The reason Kalil’s mobility was limited was because the surgeon went through his groin to get to this heart.
While Kalil downplayed the significance of the procedure, Bowler knew how serious it really was.
“Luckily, (my wife) Connie’s a nurse so she explained to me exactly what he was having done and how serious it was,” he said. “I think it was a little more serious than they told Eli it was.
“Any time you have heart surgery, really any time you go under anesthesia, it’s pretty serious.”
With that in mind, not only was Kalil’s health in jeopardy, all the work he put in over the summer getting ready for the season had to be put on hold.
“It was tough,” he admitted. “Sitting out the whole year then learning I had to have this surgery, it’s never something fun you have to do. More time to sit; it’s never fun.”
While the surgery went without issue, the next step may have been the most difficult part.
“It felt different,” he said. “I’m always used to playing basketball all year around, just having a basketball in my hands. To be out a month without touching a basketball at all... it was different.”
So, instead of physical reps to get ready, Kalil said he had to focus on preparing his mind for basketball.
“It was really frustrating, but I had a lot of people telling me the mental game is the biggest part of the game, it’s not just physical,” he said. “So I’m always trying to build up the physical part as well as the mental part.”
Priding himself for always having a strong relationship with his players, Bowler said he and Kalil do have a special connection that extends beyond the basketball court.
“Well, for me, we’re close. We’re very close,” Bowler said. “I’ve known Eli for a long time but you know, our relationship is great. I have a real good relationship with all our players but I’m extremely close to Eli.
“He made a big sacrifice to come play for Edgewood. And to come play for me. And I’ll never forget it.”
Which is why it was a no-brainer for Bowler to visit him after he got out of surgery.
Although apparently for many, this was a very big deal.
“I went up to see him. Everyone made a big deal out of that, I couldn’t understand why,” Bowler said, laughing. “Everyone was like, ‘the coach is here, the coach is here.’ I was like, ‘what do you mean? Don’t coaches go see kids when they’re in the hospital?’ But he did good.”
Kalil said that visit was important to him.
“It meant a lot,” he said. “When a coach reaches out and shows you that you mean something to him, that means a lot to me. Especially, when I’m up there and I’m getting operated on.”
For the Edgewood junior, that close relationship is a two-way street.
“He’s like another dad to me,” he said. “He’s always reaching out to me, always asking me what he can do for me to make me more comfortable and that’s what means the most.”
Relationship aside, there was still a recovery process to come...
Road to recovery
While August is a no-contact period for high school basketball, Kalil’s down time extended into September ,when conditioning and open gyms resume.
Although he couldn’t do any official conditioning or open gyms, he also couldn’t work on his game on his own, as he would’ve otherwise.
The biggest fear wasn’t Kalil’s heart, but that he could severely injure his groin.
“That’s where they operated through (the groin) so that was the biggest thing getting that lateral movement back, that was the toughest thing,” he said.
While the doctors told him he’d be out a month, Bowler feared it would be longer than that and it could extend into the start of the season.
“I was, I was totally (concerned),” he said. “Because the way Connie explained it to me with it going through the groin and everything, I thought it might take him a couple months, maybe even three.
“That would’ve brought us almost into the start of the season. I was a little worried he might not be ready physically.”
This wasn’t an injury like an ACL tear, where a player can work on a jump shot or ball handling but just can’t run or move laterally.
Kalil wasn’t 100-percent sidelined.
“He took his time with the recovery and it was slow,” Bowler said. “I mean, he couldn’t do anything for four weeks plus sitting out a year. It’s a long process.”
As Kalil listened to the doctors, he was ready to go on Nov. 1 when practice officially began.
Still, Bowler had to remind himself that even though he was cleared, he wasn’t necessarily 100 percent.
“When he first came back, I just told my son Jay (Braden seventh-grade boys coach and Edgewood assistant) to watch him,” Bowler said. “He kinda watched him at first to make sure he was OK and make sure I wasn’t pushing him too hard because I have a tendency to push kinda hard, especially if I see a guy not giving 100 percent.
“I would push him forgetting that he had heart surgery and, there were times I forgot, so I was trying to push him hard and Jay was telling me to back off a little bit.”
Bowler’s patience with Kalil and Kalil’s patience with his body paid off when he returned...
Perhaps no moment singled Kalil’s return, and welcome to Edgewood, than with in the final seconds of the Warriors game at Jefferson on Dec. 10.
Kalil made a layup then sunk a free throw with 1.7 seconds remaining to give Edgewood a 1-point victory over its Ashtabula County rival.
“It was definitely a settling in moment (for me),” he said. “The fans are really supportive and the team is definitely supportive of me. I think if I wasn’t already settled in that was my settling in moment.
“It got my feet wet and ready to go.”
For Bowler, it was obviously a thrilling moment.
“It was, it was,” he said. “To make that shot, then make that foul shot with everybody screaming and yelling that was big. That was huge.
“I think he’s almost where he should be. Defensively, he needs to keep working harder, but physically, I think he’s there.”
“If I’m not there, I’m about 95 percent there,” Kalil said.
If Kalil isn’t physically 100 percent yet, opposing teams should be concerned when he gets there.
Through six games, he’s averaging 18.6 points, 8 rebounds and 3.2 assists a game, while shooting 50.7 percent from the field.
Physical abilities aside, much of his success can be attributed to something that has nothing to do with basketball...
“Eli has fantastic support,” Bowler said. “He really has a very good support system. His parents and friends are great. His parents really are outstanding.”
So much so, that the son of David and Andrea Kalil said his parents might be more excited about his success than he is.
“They might be more excited than I was,” he said with a chuckle. “They were ecstatic.”
Never ones to miss games, Kalil said the surgery and sitting out process was just as tough on them as it was on him.
“It was really tough for them, my mom’s my biggest fan and my dad’s my biggest basketball fan, too,” he said. “They’re both great. It was tough for them, they’re at every basketball game, they never miss one. My dad works 24-7 and he takes off and trades shifts with everybody to try and see my games. They do a great job and always support me.
“It was really tough for them and it was really tough for me.”
Now, healthy and back on the court, Kalil is just tough on the Warriors’ opponents.
Peluso is a sports writer for the Star Beacon. Reach him at email@example.com.