From Wolves to Ramblers, this pack of first-year players is experienced playing basketball with each other. Guards Paxson Wojcik and Marquise Kennedy and forward Tom Welch all played on the same Illinois Wolves team before joining Loyola this season.
The three players came from very different backgrounds but joined together to play on the Illinois Wolves — a traveling basketball team in the Under Armour Association (UAA). The UAA is a league of traveling club basketball teams that play across the country in a league sponsored by Under Armour.
The Wolves have four age groups — under-14, under-15, under-16 and under-17 — and are based in the southwest suburbs. The Wolves are a prominent travel team with notable alumni such as NBA players Evan Turner, Frank Kaminsky and Keita Bates-Diop.
Wojcik’s father is an assistant basketball coach at Michigan State University. Wojcik is from Charleston, South Carolina but played basketball at La Lumiere School in Indiana. Kennedy attended Brother Rice High School in Chicago and was the highest rated recruit of the three players, according to 247sports.com. Welch attended Naperville North High School and earned the Gatorade Illinois Boys Soccer Player of the Year in 2017 as a goalkeeper while leading Naperville North to three consecutive state soccer titles.
The trio of Loyola players all played together on the Wolves’ under-17 squad during their junior years of high school in 2018. Wolves’ under-17 head coach Mike Mullins said the three players were instrumental in his squad’s success, which included reaching the UAA Finals in Las Vegas, Nevada — a tournament featuring the eight best teams from the UAA season. Mullins said the team lost in the opening round off a buzzer-beater.
“They were the foundation of a team that was nationally ranked for a couple years with [Welch] and [Wojcik],” Mullins said.
Welch and Wojcik played on the Wolves for two years after also representing the under-16 Illinois Wolves team. The following year, Kennedy joined them on the under-17 team. Wojcik said the Wolves had a decent under-16 team but needed a player like Kennedy to “take them to the next level.” Kennedy said the transition was very smooth, both in terms of meshing on the court as well as building chemistry off the court.
“I was welcomed with open arms,” Kennedy said. “As the season went, I just got closer with [Wojcik and Welch] especially, but everybody just grew together and bonded. We played against teams people said we shouldn’t have beaten, but we were whooping them. I think it was mostly the bond that played into that.”
When asked about their favorite memories of playing together, the three former Wolves in unison mentioned the UAA Finals in Las Vegas — both for on-court success and off-court camaraderie. Wojcik and Kennedy became especially close since they were roommates during the trip.
“If we had to get up at 8 a.m., [Kennedy] would set an alarm for 6, 6:30, 7, 7:30 just to be sure he’d wake up,” Wojcik said while laughing about the trip. “It’s hard to get sleep with Marquise, but making it to the Under Armour Finals in Las Vegas was a huge accomplishment for us.”
That off-the-court bond helped the trio lead the Wolves to success in the travel basketball circuit, but it also impacted their college decisions. Wojcik was the first player to commit to Loyola, and he said he immediately started giving recruiting pitches to the others.
“I committed first, and then I gave a good recruiting pitch and then it was dominoes,” said Wojcik, a 19-year-old finance major.
In an effort to gain Welch and Kennedy, Wojcik said Loyola head coach Porter Moser was at every single Wolves home game after his commitment in June 2019.
Welch, an 18-year-old undecided business major, was the second to decide on Loyola, and he said after that, he was pretty certain that Kennedy would become a Rambler, too.
“I think I committed like a month after them,” Kennedy said. “Every single day, it was like, ‘Bro, when you gonna commit?’”
Welch echoed Kennedy’s remarks about close friendship. He said having Wojcik and Kennedy for support was especially helpful in the early stages of his college career.
“Just having someone there to talk to,” Welch said. “When we came in, we were all pretty much best friends. Obviously, the whole team is close now, but the first couple weeks if we wanted someone to hangout with on the weekends [we’d ask each other] ‘What are you doing?’”
Mullins said he provided a helping hand in the recruiting process, but ultimately all three players chose Loyola on their own. Welch said Moser “showed love and support like no other coach” which greatly impacted his decision.
Also, Mullins is the father of former Loyola associate head coach Bryan Mullins, who was on Moser’s staff while recruiting the trio of Wolves. He is now the head coach at Southern Illinois University.
“I’m part of the [recruiting] process for all of our players,” Mullins said. “I disseminate and give them the information of people who are interested. … I don’t make decisions for my players. They make them for themselves.”
During their time at Loyola, Kennedy, an 18-year-old undecided business major, has made the biggest on-court impact. The 6-foot-1 guard started six of the Ramblers’ nine games — averaging 22.8 minutes per game — and is averaging 8.8 points, which is fourth-highest on the team. Wojcik, a 6-foot-4 guard, has started one game and is averaging 3.4 points in the 18.4 minutes of court time he sees per game.
Welch, a 6-foot-8 forward, is averaging just 2.4 points per game in 9.4 minutes per contest, but Moser hasn’t always played first-year big men in recent years. Last season, first-year forward Franklin Agunanne played 6.8 minutes per game while first-year forward Chrstian Negron played only 4.2 minutes per game in 2017-18.
Outside of the actual games, the trio said college basketball has a much more rigorous schedule than high school and travel basketball. They listed practice intensity, more in-depth game prep and an overall lack of free time as the biggest differences. However, they said being able to rely on each other has made the transition much easier.
“I think [having Wojcik and Welch] made it so much easier,” Kennedy said. “I had two other people to relate to, and if one of us was struggling, most of the time all of us were struggling. We just pick each other up, and it’s made it so much more comfortable.”