Hoops at Oak Park and River Forest will look quite familiar this season.
Four of six regular players from last year's stellar 24-4 team, including starters Robert Strzemp and Evan Hilton, return to try and maintain OPRF's status among the top 20 teams in the state. The Huskies will even have a Cornelius roaming the court again this year from time to time. No, it won't be the ghost of former standout Christian Cornelius, who graduated last year after leading the Huskies with 20 points and 11 rebounds per game, but his brother Justin.
According to OPRF head coach Al Allen, the younger Cornelius, who had never played organized basketball at the high school level until this year, worked out extensively in the off season and has the potential to make a significant contribution this year.
"He never played organized basketball before because he didn't want to live in the shadow of his brother," said Allen of Justin. "We hope that he can learn the other parts of our system, but it's a four-year system. We tried to force feed him during the summer, so we'll see what happens."
Justin Cornelius, a senior who is said to be an "excellent 3-point shooter," is a backup to the 6-foot-3-inch Hilton, who averaged 11 points per game last year to help lead the Huskies to a West Suburban (Silver) Conference title. Hilton and Strzemp are captains this year, and expected to be OPRF's main scoring threats.
Allen is optimistic this year that Strzemp, also 6-3, will double his average of eight points and six rebounds from a year ago.
"Now Robert has an outside game to go along with his inside game," said Allen of his power forward. "He's also a stronger player this year."
Allen hinted a possible long-range attack may be in the cards this year for the Huskies.
"We have several guys who can shoot the ball very well," he said. "Three-pointers may play into our strategy a lot this year."
Hilton shot 43 percent from behind the arc last year, and fellow returning starter Gabe Simms shot 32 percent.
Howard Boone will again start at center for the Huskies this season. The 6-6 senior was constantly plagued by foul trouble last year.
"If Howard stays out of foul trouble, he'll be a double-digit rebounder this year," said Allen.
Newcomers expected to make an impact include Jason Simmons and Brandon Lathon. Both arrive with playing experience in the basketball program, though Lathon took last year off to focus on other sports. Simmons, a decent ball-handler, was called up to varsity mid-way through last season.
The WSC looks up for grabs again this year. It's not clear who might be standing in the way of OPRF winning its second consecutive conference title. Teams in the conferenceâ€"but not OPRFâ€"saw an influx of transfers this season. York, Proviso West, Lyons Township and Glenbard West all received significant transfers to their lineups this season. York received four players.
Allen said without question his team wants to take on cross-town rival Fenwick again in the playoffs this year. It's been two years straight that the Friars have knocked OPRF out of the playoffs.
"[Fenwick head coach] John Quinn is a great coach, has a great program and they always give us trouble," said Allen. "I'm certain my players want that to end."
The Huskies travel to Evanston for the Thanksgiving tournament this Friday and Saturday. Their home opener is Tuesday, Nov. 30 against Argo (6 p.m.).