Friday, March 4, will be a big day for the OPRF boys' basketball team, assuming the Huskies defeat Argo on the Argonauts' home court in the semifinal of the Summit Regional.
But this has been a strange season for the Huskies (15-9). First, the team lost star player Evan Hilton, who broke his ankle just three games into the season. Robert Stzemp (20 ppg) took hold of the reigns and guided the Huskies through tough times. OPRF scratched and clawed its way into second place in the West Suburban (Silver) Conference, behind Lyons Township, and that's where the team was expected to finish. But the Lions have struggled lately, and both teams are 8-3 going into their final regular-season and conference games on Friday.
Now, the Huskies may be without Strzemp. The senior forward suffered a severe sprain in the first quarter of a 61-33 thumping of Addison Trail on Saturday night. He was on crutches as of Monday and was expected to have x-rays done early this week.
The good news is Hilton is back and relatively healed, if not rusty. He's been dusting off the cobwebs with double-digit scoring numbers for the past two weeks. He scored 14 points in OPRF's 58-43 win over Hinsdale Central on Friday night and 11 in the win over Addison Trail.
"This has been the strangest basketball season in a long time for me," said a frustrated Al Allen, OPRF's head coach. "It's been unbelievable. We lose our best player; we have someone step up and fill in the role, and now once one player is back, the other is hurt."
With or without Strzemp, OPRF already has an advantage over its first round opponent Argo. The Huskies beat the Argonauts 61-59 back on Nov. 30, and that was without Hilton.
Luckily, OPRF has a resourceful bench. The Huskies managed to salvage a season nearly wiped away with the loss of Hilton. Now they may have to re-enact the same heroics in the postseason, with the possible loss of Strzemp.
An upset of the formidable but vulnerable St. Joseph in the regional title game would be OPRF's penultimate accomplishment of the year--a triumph that would surely get the irascible but likable Allen to literally dance mid-court, something the tenured coach did last year when the Huskies won their regional.
With Hilton back in full swing, the Huskies, who were also without center Howard Boone for a few games this season, will need to either quickly find the chemistry and the timing that team's have in the playoffs or simply become a scrappy nuisance. St. Joe went undefeated with 20-straight victories before being upset by Brother Rice 74-69 on Feb. 12.
The Crusaders, playing without star player and North Carolina-bound Bobby Frasor, reverted to street ball against the Chargers, diving, hustling, outmanning, outdefending, and outshooting St. Joe, also this year's winner of the prestigious Proviso West Holiday tournament.
Can OPRF drudge up that kind of intensity? St. Joe will have to be rattled early and often. The Chargers are no doubt seething over the loss to Brother Rice and a near loss to Conant on Feb. 15--they hatched out a 52-50 victory in the final seconds.
Tony Freeman, who is headed to Iowa in the fall, averages around 20 points per game for St. Joe, and his teammate, Jonathon Peoples, isn't too far behind. Both scored 20 points or more in the loss to the Crusaders.
But the Huskies know a thing or two about upsets. They shocked locals with a 56-50 win over Lyons Township in late January, and now they're just a game away from locking up the WSC title for the second year in a row.
With Hilton back and Strzemp out, players like Gabe Sims, Dwight James, and Jason Pontone will still be counted on come playoff time.
OPRF travels to Hillside on Friday (7:30 p.m.) to take on Proviso West (6-5, 15-10) for the team's final game of the regular season. If OPRF wins, and Lyons loses to Downers Grove North that same night, the WSC trophy will go to the Huskies.
Mon., Feb. 28
Game 1 at 7:30 p.m.: (14) Kennedy vs. (19) Hancock
Tue., Mar. 1
Game 2 at 7:30 p.m.: (1) St. Joseph vs. Winner Game 1
Wed., Mar. 2
Game 3 at 7:30 p.m.: (8) OPRF vs. (12) Argo
Fri., Mar. 4
Game 4 at 7:30 p.m.: Winner Game 2 vs. Winner Game 3