Fenwick defeated Oak Park and River Forest 48-40 at the Chicago Elite Classic at UIC on Dec. 5. The crosstown rivals could square off again in the sectional semifinals (March 10, 7 p.m.) of the Morton Sectional. Of course, that assumes the Friars and Huskies earn two wins apiece along the way. That’s certainly no given, considering Fenwick will likely meet Curie, and OPRF faces Leyden and then probably No. 1 sectional seed Riverside-Brookfield in regional play.
Welcome to the Class 4A state playoffs sectional of parity, where area rivals Fenwick, OPRF, RBHS and Morton, along with Chicago Public League powerhouse teams like Whitney Young, Kenwood and Curie, and solid Catholic League teams in St. Ignatius and De La Salle all carry the same objective — survive and advance. By the way, throw in Proviso East and Leyden as dangerous floaters.
“Our sectional is the deepest in the state,” OPRF coach Matt Maloney said. “The top 14 teams in our sectional have records well above .500. Of course, to advance in any regional and sectional you have to beat quality teams.”
Class 4A defending state champion Whitney Young (17-9), Kenwood (18-6), Fenwick (21-7) and Curie (17-6) are seeded second through fifth, respectively, behind RBHS (24-3).
Fenwick is led by the talented tandem of juniors Mike Smith and Mike Ballard, who both earned Chicago Catholic League all-conference honors. Coached by Rick Malnati, the battle-tested Friars have one of the toughest schedules in the state. Fenwick has notched notable victories against OPRF, Morton, Homewood-Flossmoor, DePaul Prep and Mount Carmel and won its own John Malone Memorial Tournament to open the season.
“We’re focused on taking it one game, one opponent at a time,” Ballard said. “It’s really fun hosting a regional because we’ll play in front of our fans and student section. It’s cool we moved up a Class [3A to 4A] because there’s a chance we can play area rivals. We’re not looking ahead but it would be fun to play a big rival [OPRF] that’s close to us.”
OPRF (15-9), the No. 8 seed, rolls into the playoffs playing its best basketball of the season with seven wins in eight games. The Huskies, who also faced a plethora of tough opponents during the regular season, employ an up-tempo style of play with four starting guards. Dallis Flowers, Breshawn Wilkerson, Connor Fuller and Elliot Greffin are experienced players who can score, pass and defend. The emergence of underclassmen like freshman Alan Griffin and sophomores Cameron Gross and Jared Scott has provided the Huskies with depth.
RBHS (24-3) won its 14th straight conference title this season and notched impressive wins over OPRF, LTHS, DePaul Prep and St. Ignatius (twice). The Bulldogs are loaded with talent, size, speed and experience. 6-7 senior forward Sam Johnson can score and rebound with the best, while fellow bigs like 6-7 Mark Smith and 6-5 Paul Sitkiewicz provide reinforcements in the paint. Guards Daniko Jackson, Jalen Clanton and Henry Trelenberg make up a dynamic backcourt.
“We’re very proud of winning conference again and having another good season,” Jackson said. “It’s a very tough sectional, but we are going to compete and give it our best effort. There are a lot of good teams we could face, so it’s going to make us better moving forward. Hopefully, we can win the sectional.”
“I’m happy that we put ourselves in a position to be the No. 1 seed. Once the games starts it’s all about taking it one game at a time, survive and advance,” RBHS coach Tom McCloskey said. “We had a great regular season and faced some really tough competition. I think everybody is excited to get the playoffs started. We’re focused on our first game and we’ll go from there.”
If RBHS and OPRF win their opening games, they will meet in the Leyden Regional final on Friday at 7 p.m. The Bulldogs beat the Huskies 62-57 on Nov. 29 in the championship game of the Bill VandeMerkt Thanksgiving Tournament.
Host Fenwick and Curie will likely collide in a riveting regional final as well on Friday (7 p.m.) in Oak Park.