The Fenwick High School boys basketball team had an experienced roster and a new coach last season.
That proved to be a good combination as the Friars went 22-9 and reached their first sectional final since 2004 under first-year boss Rick Malnati.
The preseason situation is reversed this year, with Malnati settled in but dealing with a relatively inexperienced squad that has only three seniors
“I’m not sure how high our ceiling is because we’re so young, but the kids are really working hard,” Malnati said. “It all depends on chemistry. Chemistry is the key to basketball and we’ll see how good our chemistry is.”
The Friars can be forgiven if they get off to a slow start. The departures of Scott Lindsey, now at Northwestern, and big post players Tom Planek and Dan Dwyer leave some big shoes to fill, but Malnati is confident the team will be a lot better by the end of the season than it is now.
That’s because Fenwick has some good young players, notably junior guard Mike Smith and junior guard/forward Mike Ballard. Smith led the team in scoring at 14.5 points and assists with 3.8 per game last winter.
“[Smith] had a great year last year,” Malnati said. “We’re hoping he can be a leader this year. He definitely gets the opportunity.”
Part of Smith’s success as a sophomore can be attributed to the presence of the big front line, which won’t be as large or as experienced this season.
“We’re a real young basketball team,” Malnati said. “Life is going to be a little different for Mike this year. Teams didn’t really key on him last year because we had so many options.”
While Smith prepared for his starring role, the 6-3 Ballard bulked up a bit in order to play power forward as he transitions to a starting role.
“He played his best basketball at the end of the season,” Malnati said. “He’s got some big shoes to fill.
“We want him to score, we want him to get to the foul line and shift more inside. He’s developed a nice perimeter game and he’s worked hard over the summer.”
The other key young player is sophomore Jamal Nixon, a 6-3 guard/forward who played all 31 games as a freshman and averaged 3.0 points and 1.9 assists. He got a baptism by fire as a rookie filling in for injured players early in the season and played well enough to keep playing.
Now Nixon, like Ballard, will play more on the inside. He’ll also frequently be asked to guard the other team’s best player,
“He’s a really good passer and we’re going to need him to step up his inside game,” Malnati said. “He’s a wonderful kid to have in the program.
“I need him to be a little more vocal. He knows what to say and when to say it but sometimes he’s soft-spoken. But he’s a great teammate and we’re going to look for him to lead us.”
The other starting spots are still up for grabs. Of the seniors, only guard Kevin Owens saw action outside of garbage time, averaging 2.9 points in 26 games, primarily filling in for the injured Lindsey.
Jack Grogan, a 6-3 point guard, and 5-9 guard Matt Androwich, were reserves a year ago. They will vie with four newcomers for playing time.
Junior Charlie Boyle, a 6-7 center, is the team’s tallest player, while 5-9 junior point guard Quinn Fisher, 6-2 sophomore guard Jacob Teller and 6-0 freshman guard A.J. Nixon will make their varsity debuts.
Malnati likes Teller’s strength and size while Fisher was the most valuable player on the sophomore team last year. Nixon, no relation to Jamal Nixon, will ride the bench initially.
“If we stay healthy he won’t see much time,” Malnati said. “But he’s a sponge. He picks up everything we’re doing and really competes. I think by the end of the year he’ll be getting playing time.”
Whoever plays will face a schedule just as tough as last year’s, which featured 16 games against ranked opponents. The Friars won half of them, beating Class 4A state runner-up Benet and 2A state champion Providence-St. Mel. One of their losses was to 3A state champ Morgan Park and they were eliminated by Orr, which finished third.
A difficult schedule means the Friars might not match last year’s 22 wins, but that doesn’t concern Malnati.
“It’s not who starts,” Malnati said. “It’s who finishes.”