Photo by Jeff Yoder
Your Prep Sports
SOLON – Like most of the other top prep basketball players in the state AJ Coons is eager for the for the official start of practices in a little more than two weeks.
Unlike many of his peers on the basketball court Coons is hoping he isn’t a full-time participant when high school hoops practices start next month.
The preference for Coons, who led the Spartans in scoring last season at 17.5 points per game, is to still be playing football on November 12 when basketball practices officially begin.
“I am looking forward to basketball but I want to finish out this season the way I think we can,” Coons said. “Hopefully, I’m still playing football for a while.”
If third-ranked Solon (9-0) is to keep its football season going into November the Spartans will need Coons to continue the play that has helped turn the junior into one of the most productive pass catchers in the state.
Coons ranks in the top six in Class 3A in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown grabs in a breakthrough junior season.
The first step to extending his season comes on Friday when the Solon seeks its 17th consecutive opening-round playoff win when it hosts eighth-ranked Western Dubuque (7-2) at 7 p.m. at Spartan Stadium.
“Right now, I’m kind of even on the sports, it’s kind of whatever season it is that’s my favorite sport,” Coons said. “It’s football season right now and I want to play football as long as I possibly can and then I’ll switch to basketball.”
Coons burst onto the basketball scene two seasons ago when he averaged 7.9 points per game as a freshman.
The basketball breakthrough for the 6-foot-4 shooting guard came last year when he led the Spartans in scoring while helping Solon to the district title game.
Coons play the past two seasons has garnered recruiting interest from the likes of Miami of Ohio, UNI, North Dakota and Winona State.
This season he has seen his football stock rise with a big-time junior season.
Coons led Solon with 552 yards on 23 receptions in 12 games last season but has elevated his game as a junior.
Coons ranks fifth in 3A with 45 receptions, sixth with 719 yards and has caught a 3A-leading 12 touchdown passes.
“He is long and he’s athletic and he has good hands,” Solon coach Kevin Miller said. “He has great balls skills. Being a basketball player he high points everything and that’s what good receivers do they go catch the ball at the highest point.”
Coons has the combination of size and speed that makes him a nightmare for opposing defenders as an outside receiver.
Adding a few subtilties to his repertoire has made defending Coons an unenviable task for any defensive back.
“His size for sure is a big thing for him, he’s 6-foot-4 and he’s fast,” Solon junior quarterback Cam Miller said. “The thing about AJ is when he is going deep he extends late and that is so tough for a corner that is trying to react to his hands. That is truly really hard to do and makes him tough to defend.”
Consistency has been a focus for Coons this season as the only returning Solon receiver with double digit receptions.
A year ago Coons has nine games with two or fewer receptions including seven games in which he had zero or one catch.
This year Coons has caught at least five passes in six games and has a pair of 10-catch performances.
His performance has drawn some football recruiting interest from Iowa State.
“I feel like last year we had some other guys playing receiver and this year I’m stepping into more of a leadership role where I had to get more receptions,” Coons said. “Just knowing the coverages that the defense is going to run and how to run routes better and just working the timing with Cam has helped me improve.”
Miller and Coons where both ball boys for the Spartans as kids and have played on the same football team since fifth grade.
That relationship has gone a long way in make them one of the top passing duos in 3A.
“They have been doing this since they were ball boys,” Kevin Miller said. “Since they have been seven or eight years old those two have been playing catch so they have a really good feel and sense of what each other is going to at that time.
Coons has seen his football role expand across the field not just as a receiver.
He is playing more defensive back this season and has 10 tackles and an interception and is the Spartans’ top return man.
Coons averages 26.8 yards per kick return and 13.9 yards per punt return.
On top of all that he has become an important part of the Solon running game as a perimeter blocker.
“He is a great blocker, honestly he makes a lot of plays in the pass game but he is also returning punts and kicks for us and does a tremendous job of blocking in space,” Kevin Miller said. “He is relentless as a blocker and I think that has really improved his game and made him a more versatile wide receiver. To me he has become a more physical football player and it shows.”
The calendar always fills up fast for Coons.
Spring and summer are the toughest as he splits time between track, football workouts and AAU basketball.
It’s a balancing act for a three-sport athlete but one that Coons embraces.
“It’s been tough with all the different activities that I do in the summer between football and basketball and lifting and its just trying to find that balance knowing that you can’t be everywhere all the time,” Coons said. “You have to try to do as much as you can without putting too much stress on your body.”
Coons makes time for basketball in the fall.
He gets in the gym on days Solon doesn’t have football practice or gets up some jump shots after a shorter day on the football field.
It’s an exhausting schedule but one that Coons hopes doesn’t lighten up any time soon.
“I try to find time to try to stay crisp for basketball while still being able to watch film and get reps and be the best I can on the football field too,” Coons said. “I’m just trying to compete and do the best I can in both and hopefully we can keep winning football games.”