Certain things have to fall into place for a team to win the IHSA Girls' Basketball State championship. Prior to the playoffs, the team must be well prepped for a grueling and competitive schedule. Experience also plays a part. Being calm, cool and collected during a close game with a gym packed with rowdy spectators provides a valuable advantage. It doesn't hurt to have lost a couple of hard-fought games during a rigorous regular season.
But what's the No. 1 advantage a team can have going into the IHSA Girls Basketball State playoffs?
That's why this season Fenwick looks poised to win its second State title. The Friars (27-2, 8-1) have more talent than a coach could ever ask for, and the players are mostly sophomores. Don't assume this team lacks experience. Alison Jackson, Devereaux Peters, Samantha Woods and Erin Power helped Fenwick finish third at State as freshman. The group has stepped up its play this season, providing backup to senior Brittanny Johnson's explosive all-around game. Johnson has averaged 17 points per game this season.
Fenwick's only two losses came to now No. 1-ranked Sandburg late in the season (Jan. 4) and Marian Catholic (Feb. 1), the team that Fenwick defeated to finish third at State last season. But a couple of losses have taken the pressure off a young team expected to do too much.
"Everyone was talking about an undefeated season so it was just one more thing we had to think about," said Johnson a few days after the 55-40 loss to Sandburg. "That pressure is gone."
The Friars clinched at least a share of their 11th straight East Suburban Catholic Conference title last month with a 67-19 clobbering of Nazareth, who just happens to be their first-round opponent in their own regional beginning Tuesday night (7:30 p.m.). The other regional opponents, either IHM or Argo in the second round, shouldn't pose a problem for Fenwick. But a tough Lyons Township, coming out of the Morton Regional, will have home-court advantage in the sectional, and the 22-6 Lions can be ferocious at times. Mallory Heydorn helped LT clinch a share of the West Suburban (Silver) Conference title; no easy task considering the conference had some dominant teams this season.
Beyond LT, it' possible the Friars could be in for a showdown between either area-rival Trinity or cross-town rival OPRF. The Friars downed Trinity earlier in the season on the Blazers' home court, but didn't play OPRF.
Adding to Fenwick's chances this season is last year's graduation of Candace Parker, the 6-foot-4-inch phenom who led Naperville Central to back-to-back State titles the last two years--including a 63-59 title win over Fenwick in the championship game in 2003.
No guarantees for OPRF
Every high school girls' basketball team in Oak Park and River Forest has the pleasure of hosting a regional this season. Out of all three teams, it's OPRF who will mostly need to use the advantage to their benefit.
It's been an up-and-down season for the Huskies (20-9, 6-4). They struggled early with injuries and had to keep afloat in a competitive WSC, where Hinsdale Central and Lyons were busy duking it out for first place. The Lions proved too tough for OPRF as the Huskies dropped both regular-season games, but the Red Devils let their guard down during a low-scoring affair against the Huskies back on Jan. 15. OPRF scratched to a 29-23 victory over the then highly-ranked Hinsdale Central.
Besides Brittney Marshall (14 ppg), other Huskies who have had big games in the second half of the season are Amber Slaughter, Ashleen Bracey, Kate Corkle and Tina Frank. Slaughter scored a career-high 28 points in a 72-66 win over Proviso West three weeks ago. Frank tallied her first double-double of the year with 14 points and 10 rebounds in a blowout of Fenton last week.
Given a sixth seed in the Lyons Sectional, OPRF will host 12th seeded Curie on Monday (8 p.m.) in the first round of their own regional. But there's no guarantee the Huskies will emerge from even the regional, not with Riverside-Brookfield a possible title opponent. The Bulldogs pack a punch with McCloskey cousins Maggie and Katelyn, and Erin Pfieffer. Maggie had 19 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds and four assists in a 63-52 win over Ridgewood two weeks ago.
Trio to carry Trinity?
If Katie Jarger's 3-point accuracy, Alison Sansone's free-throw accuracy, and Lykendra Johnson's all-around accuracy carry over into the playoffs, Trinity (18-10) will zip through its regional beginning Monday against Elmwood Park (6 p.m.). The No. 2 seeded Blazers should take on either Proviso West or Leyden in the title game on Feb. 17.
Last year's starting forward Tony Carter could finally return to the lineup after a lingering back ailment has sidelined her for most of the year.