It was a wild and wacky season for OPRF

From the sports editor

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BRAD SPENCER

It was a season of: retirement talk, cancer, high expectations, a broken foot, player misconduct, heroics, more injuries, a miraculous healing, luck, redemption and worthy reflection.

It was the 2004-05 season of the OPRF boys' basketball team and now it's over, merely an ink blot, though still wet, in history. It was a bumpy, often jarring, ride. And yet it turned out to be triumphant in its own dysfunctional and then functional way.

It all began with ...

Retirement talk

The 2004-05 season was to be Al Allen's final year as head coach of the Huskies. Allen, who has coached basketball at OPRF since 1987, declared publicly that he was tired of the abuse from irate parents ridiculing his coaching methods and that once he saw a certain senior class graduate he would be out of the business. But what changed his mind was ...

Cancer

If last year Allen, who is, by his own admission, as stubborn as a mule, hadn't finally given in to having surgery on an ailing knee, this season may have turned out even tragic for the Huskies. While prepping Allen for routine knee surgery last year, doctors found that the 58-year-old coach had prostate cancer.

After prolonging it for months, Allen, who is divorced with two children, finally had his prostate removed last summer. Allen's own words: "Laying in a hospital bed on your back cut up and there is no one there you tend to think about things. I was going to leave coaching only because of a minority of parents. I changed my mind right then and there."

Allen, also a coach in the football program at OPRF, wanted to get back to coaching so bad he went to work wearing a catheter.

"It didn't matter how bad it hurt, I just wanted to be there," said Allen, who, during his health woes, received help from his assistant coaches, including Nick Sakellaris, also a cancer survivor.

Allen coached the basketball team to a 24-4 overall record last year, which led to ?

High expectations

The Huskies were expected to take this season by storm. Their leading scorer Christian Cornelius had graduated, but the absence left room for versatile players like Evan Hilton and Robert Strzemp to take control. Allen himself anticipated a top-ranking in the state, perhaps a sectional title, and who knows, maybe even a trip Downstate. And then came ...

A broken foot

In just the third game of the season, while playing in a game at the Evanston Township Thanksgiving tournament, Hilton broke his foot. The senior scored 27 points in the team's first game, 23 in the second game, and 11 before the wind died in the Huskies' sail. He would be out for the bulk of the season. Fans figured the season was lost. Focus diminished, which may have led to ...

Player misconduct

It's no secret Allen is a tough disciplinarian. He's well-known for his old-school, no-nonsense mentality when it comes to following team rules, and beating cancer hadn't softened him. He was forced to suspend a starter for misconduct in the classroom for a number of games, and Allen did it without even considering the consequences.

"You have team rules in place, everyone follows them, no exceptions," he said.

This obstacle and Hilton's loss led to a five-game skid. It looked as if for the Huskies to eke out even a modicum of success this season it was going to take ...

Heroics

Strzemp began shouldering the weight of a season tacking on pounds by the day. His scoring average soared to over 20 points per game. With the help of players like Gabe Sims, Dwight James, and Jason Pontone, Strzemp was holding an embattled team upright. The Huskies put together a five-game winning streak against conference opponents, despite ...

More injuries

Soon the injury bug spread to players like Jason Simmons (shoulder), Howard Boone (knee, hand) and Sims (wrist), and even the superhero Strzemp, whose severely sprained ankle, suffered in a meaningless blowout over Addison Trail, underwent somewhat of a ...

Miraculous healing

With the conference title on the line and a brutal postseason looming, Strzemp and trainer Mike Barnish nursed the senior's bruised and tender ankle back into workable condition. He scored a double-double of 13 points and 13 rebounds in OPRF's conference title clinching 53-44 victory over Proviso West in the final game of the regular season.

With Hilton back and scoring in double-digits and Strzemp playing through pain for double-doubles, the Huskies couldn't have more ...

Luck

Or could they? Lyons Township, who dominated the WSC Silver for much of the season, began to fall apart. The Lions lost six straight conference games, including one to Downers Grove North in the final game of the regular season which led to OPRF winning the WSC Silver outright for the second straight year.

After what they had been through, for the Huskies the conference title felt like a form of ...

Redemption

The sign so prominent in the locker room had come to life for the Huskies: Basketball is a game of luck. The harder you work the luckier you get.

That luck seemed to run out fast as the Huskies were handed an unfavorable seeding in the Morton Sectional (No. 8), and were forced to take on top-ranked St. Joseph in the Argo Regional title game. With Hilton still a bit rusty from nearly three months away from basketball and Strzemp hobbled by a sore ankle, the Huskies battled St. Joe, taking the game down to the wire. Strzemp poured in 26 points, but the Huskies lost 59-58. It was an effort, a season of ...

Worthy reflection

And we just did that.

CONTACT: bspencer@wjinc.com

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