By Marty Farmer
The Fenwick High School girls basketball team enters the Class 4A playoffs with an uncharacteristic 11-17 record and unfamiliar 12 seed in the loaded Hinsdale South Sectional. While a cursory glance of the Friars' resume suggests a bad season, Fenwick's legendary head coach Dave Power begs to differ.
"Has it been a bad year," Power asked rhetorically after the Friars' 59-41 loss to Class 4A defending state champion Marian Catholic on Saturday. "Actually, I think it's been a good year other than our won-loss record. Don't forget we play year in and year out in the best conference around, and anybody who argues that, I'd laugh at them. We also play a very difficult nonconference schedule and we've had some injuries.
"I think we also have had some real quality wins including Loyola, Benet and New Trier. I'm very optimistic about the second season [the playoffs] and next season."
In terms of perception, perhaps the Friars' subpar regular season is magnified more in light of their historical success. Consider the program's extraordinary run of excellence under Power since 2000: two state championships, a state runner-up showing, three third-place finishes and two Elite Eight appearances. Last year, Fenwick finished 23-7.
With the exception of the Fenwick boys and girls water polo programs, girls hoops has been the signature sport for the Friars since the turn of the century. Perhaps, like the Los Angeles Lakers this season, it's just so uncommon to see the Friars struggling.
Fortunately, the Friars' proven track record and more importantly personnel (if healthy) suggests a relatively quick road to recovery. Granted, Tricia Liston and Erin Lawless aren't walking through that proverbial door, but Fenwick has enough talent on campus to win. This season marks Power's worst in terms of won-loss record since his first two seasons coaching the Friars. During his initial two campaigns at Fenwick, Power coached primarily underclassmen at the varsity level and garnered just a handful of wins.
The current crop of players remains confident that better days are on the horizon.
"It's awesome playing at Fenwick for coach Power," sophomore guard Kiki Sheard said. "I trust everything he tells me because I know it will lead to success. And I look up to a lot of our senior players like Jade Owens and Maya Garland. I learn from them, too, which makes me a better player."
Considering the high quality of opponents awaiting the Friars in the postseason, it's hard to gauge how Fenwick will fare. On a positive note, the Friars open the playoffs with some momentum and good team health. Star sophomore Deja Cage, an all-East Suburban Catholic Conference player last season, has missed the entire season with a torn ACL.
On Saturday, Fenwick started well against Marian Catholic by leading 19-18 after one quarter. Garland triggered the Friars' early offense with 10 of her 12 points in the opening quarter. Kelly Canoy scored eight points and Jade Owens finished with seven points for the game.
However, the Spartans' increased defensive intensity coupled with excellent shooting from beyond the three-point arc allowed them to pull away from Fenwick over the middle quarters en route to victory. Marian Catholic outscored the Friars 32-10 over the second and third quarters.
Ashton Millender led Marian Catholic (22-4, 9-0) with a game-high 20 points. The Spartans, who secured their second consecutive East Suburban Catholic Conference Saturday, now look to defend their 4A state title.
"They are so loaded I think their second string might be a top contending team in the conference," Power said about the Spartans. "In the first half, we played them very tough but they have a lot more kids that can move in and out of the lineup.
"We also missed a ton of layups which I think was really a telling stat. If we could have made even half of those [layups], the game is tighter and more competitive."
Before its loss to the powerhouse Spartans, Fenwick had reeled off three straight wins including an impressive victory at New Trier. The Friars consolidated that notable win by edging St. Viator 56-53 and defeating Nazareth 72-66. Owens scored 25 points in the win over Nazareth, one of her better performances since her Jan. 11 return from a severely sprained ankle. Owens injured her ankle during the Friars' season opener against Oak Park and River Forest.
"I think we've had a real nice run with Jade back in the lineup," Power said. "I like the fact that we went from our run and gun style to more traditional basketball when Jade returned. We had a little adjustment period but it's paid off.
"Considering that we had been using a run and gun style and then we sidelined that to run something different, the girls have adjusted fairly well.
While Fenwick has missed the contributions of Cage, talent remains on the roster. Owens and Garland will play college basketball at Creighton and Alabama-Birmingham, respectively, next season. Sheard is another capable scorer and playmaker for the Friars. The 5-foot-10-inch Canoy provides an interior presence, while junior sisters Jenny and Jessica Mackowiak are solid shooters. Giselle Diaz, Selena Mullis, Megan Hussey and Elle Schaefer contribute off the bench.
"The season hasn't gone too well but we had some major injuries," Sheard said. "We're a confident team. Our focus for the playoffs is to play hard and play together."
The Friars' confidence is a reflection of Power's belief in his players and the program.
"We won three games in a row entering the [Marian Catholic] game," Power said, "and we played well for most of the first half against them. I think if we play well and maybe catch a few breaks we can make some noise [in the playoffs]. I'm really optimistic about next season as well. I think we'll be right back there."
Fenwick faced Curie in the quarterfinals of the Reavis Regional on Feb. 17 (passed deadline). The Reavis Regional title game will be held on Thursday at 7 p.m.
"It's the toughest sectional in the state," Power said. "There are so many high level teams in one cluster that whoever catches hot is going to have a nice little run."