There’s no doubt Chicago is one of the premier locations in the country when targeting high school basketball excellence. The talent coming out of Chicago through the years has been nothing short of remarkable. In recent years, schools like Whitney Young, Simeon and Morgan Park have upheld the tradition of winning state championships while also providing must-see basketball in the ‘Go.
Ten minutes west of Chicago, another hotbed of hoops exists.
Welcome to Oak Park where basketball is about as about as fun to watch as Steph Curry off the dribble.
Actually, good luck finding a more compelling baseline of stories throughout the state than the “starting five” of the Oak Park and River Forest, Fenwick and Trinity High School basketball teams.
With about two-thirds of the season in the books, here’s a breakdown of the Huskies, Friars and Blazers.
Fenwick boys basketball
With apologies to highly regarded Trinity, the Fenwick boys team has produced the most impressive season to date. Despite a “Mission Impossible” schedule, the Friars stand at 17-2 with notable victories against OPRF, Whitney Young, Bogan, De La Salle, Notre Dame, Simeon and Riverside-Brookfield.
Fenwick has flourished against elite competition. Regardless of results, head coach Rick Malnati drew it up that way in terms of scheduling.
“I think this team needs a challenge. The guys want to play against the best because they feel they can be the best,” he said before the season. “That is why we play the tough teams, to see if they are as good as they think they are.”
While it remains to be seen how the Friars can go this season, they are obviously a formidable team with high aspirations for the postseason.
Fenwick kicked off the season by winning its own John Malone Thanksgiving Tournament. The team also took down Whitney Young and Bogan en route to its first finals appearance at the Proviso West Holiday Tournament since 1977.
The Friars swept Simeon, Marmion and Riverside-Brookfield (between Jan 18.-Jan. 23) as senior point guard Mike Smith proved virtually unstoppable with 91 points.
Geographically, Smith made appearances on the hardwood in Oak Park, Aurora and Lombard during that unforgettable stretch of scoring. Metaphysically, he was in an even better place.
“I just got in the zone,” Smith said after scoring 12 straight points in the final three minutes of a 67-64 win against R-B. “Shots weren’t falling for everybody else so I felt that I just had to take over.”
After torching Simeon for a career-high 38 points in the Friars’ 71-68 win, Smith offered a similar response. “I was out there playing. I wasn’t thinking about anything,” he said. “If they gave me a shot, I shot it.”
Smith is averaging 19.5 points, 4 assists, 2 .1 steals and shooting 41 percent from beyond the 3-point arc this season.
Smith’s currently unguardable status at point guard, coupled with excellent coaching from Malnati and a strong supporting cast featuring senior forward Mike Ballard (10.6 points, 5.1 rebounds per game) and versatile juniors Jacob Keller (9.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2 steals) and Jamal Nixon (8 points, 6.1 rebounds), has positioned the Friars well for the remainder of the season. Quinn Fisher and Jay Militello are other key contributors.
With a relatively undersized front line and thin bench, Fenwick has some potential areas of concern. The Friars play as hard any team in the state, however, and their starters are talented, versatile, disciplined and unselfish.
Factoring in Smith’s penchant for points and playmaking, the Friars will be a tough out in the playoffs for any opponent.
OPRF boys basketball
A cursory glance at the Huskies offers an 11-9 overall record and a 3-3 mark in the West Suburban Conference Silver Division. While the record is obviously nondescript, OPRF is an intriguing team to say the least. Tabbed as a Top 15 caliber team in the preseason, the Huskies struggled the first half of the season with a 6-8 record albeit against tough competition.
Since mid-January, the Huskies won five of six games and appear on the right track for a strong finish this season. The versatile quartet of 6-4 junior Cameron Gross (16.2 points, 6.1 rebounds), 6-2 senior guard Breshawn Wilkerson (10.4 points, 1.7 steals), 6-5 junior Jared Scott (9.8 points, 4.8 rebounds) and 6-3 senior guard Connor Fuller (9.5 points, 5.8 rebounds) has triggered the team’s resurgence.
Freshman guard Dashon Enoch (5.8) has emerged as key contributor as well and possesses the athleticism and talent to be a future star.
In a 59-50 win over Uplift at Whitney Young on Jan. 23, Enoch had 13 points and three assists while Fuller tallied a team-high 18 points and four rebounds. Malachi Ross contributed seven rebounds.
The Huskies also picked up a 62-49 victory against Proviso West on Jan. 21 as Gross dominated the action with 30 points, five boards and three steals. OPRF went on a 24-4 run midway through the game to overwhelm the visiting Panthers.
Although there have been issues at times with turnovers, missed free throws and lapses in execution, the Huskies’ talent is apparent. When their self-described “Huskie Havoc” style of play kicks in defensively, the team can look flat out spectacular in transition.
Gross has emerged as the primary scorer (particularly in the paint), while Wilkerson and Fuller lend senior experience and toughness. Scott is probably the team’s most versatile performer, which is saying something with this group. Currently, he is sidelined with a left knee injury.
Gross and Scott work well together in terms of an effective two-man game working perimeter to post. That collaborative spirit has permeated among the players at both ends of the court.
“We’ve been sharing the ball and playing good team defense,” sophomore guard Isaiah Fuller said. “I’m a pass-first point guard. I think we’ve had good intensity and execution and we have come together as a team.”
The future looks bright with the return of Division I recruits Gross and Scott in the frontcourt, plus Enoch and Isaiah Fuller in the backcourt next season.
In the meantime, the Huskies have the personnel to match up against top competition this winter. That said, it’s still a learning process.
“I have witnessed tremendous growth from the beginning (of the season) to this point,” OPRF coach Matt Maloney said. “I have found that our seniors have shown greater leadership and there is greater effort to share the ball and use our defense to generate offensive opportunities.
“The emergence of Cam Gross on the offensive end and the increased production from our young core of freshman Dashon Enoch and sophomores Isaiah Fuller and Malachi Ross has also been instrumental to our improvement.”
OPRF girls basketball
After an 0-5 start, the Huskies have rebounded nicely with 10 wins in 17 games and sole possession of first place in the West Suburban Conference Silver Division standings.
OPRF earned a hard-fought 46-42 victory against crosstown rival Fenwick on Jan. 26. Sophomore guard Maeve Nelson and junior guard Molly Cullinane scored nine points apiece and junior center Blair Ripley added eight. The Friars went on a 12-0 run late in the game, but the Huskies held on for the non-conference victory.
“It is a friendly rivalry,” OPRF coach J.P. Coughlin said. “We always get a nice crowd and you can always count on both teams playing super hard. It was not much of a rivalry in the past because we never won, but in the past few years we’ve started to make it more of a true rivalry.”
Looking ahead, OPRF has plenty of reasons for optimism. The Huskies have good leadership, a deep bench and a variety of scorers.
Defense has been the primary catalyst to success.
“Our turnaround has been because of our defense,” Coughlin said. “We really get after it on the defensive end of the floor. Our goal every game is to beat the other team in the little things.
“Obviously having players like Nelson and Cullinane on top of our defense allow us to be pretty aggressive because they are both super-fast, aggressive, and very smart. But having somebody in the middle like Ripley to block shots also makes a big difference.”
With four conference games to go, the Huskies control their own destiny with a 6-2 record as they seek to win the league title for just the third time in the past 25 years.
“It’s fun that we all work together,” Cullinane said. “Last year we had more stars but this year we’re all pretty good, so practice is really good. We all get a lot done because we all push each other.
Fenwick girls basketball
Historically, the Friars are the most successful team in town – and by a wide margin.
Under head coach Dave Power, the Friars won state titles in 2001 and 2007, finished second in 2003 and third in 2000, 2003 and 2010.
On Jan. 23, Fenwick defeated DePaul Prep 61-46 to give Power his 900th win. He became just the second girls basketball coach in Illinois history to reach the 900-win plateau, joining Marshall’s Dorothy Gaters, who has 1,044 wins.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Coach Power,” Coughlin said after the OPRF/Fenwick game. “He’s the best this state has ever had, and has helped grown the game.”
Ironically, Power reached the milestone during what to date has been Fenwick’s least successful season. The win over DePaul gave the Friars (6-15) their first winning streak of the campaign.
“For a while it looked like it might take another 39 years,” Power cracked. “No, it was very nice.
“I was proud of the girls. They played with a lot of heart. At times they were trying too hard because they wanted it so bad.”
Although the Friars have struggled in the win-loss column, several players have developed nicely this season. Sophomore guard Kate Moore is averaging a team-high 11.6 points and 1.8 steals, while McKenzie Blaze and Kiki Sheard (7.9 points, 6 rebounds, 2.3 assists) and McKenzie Blaze (7.9 points, 5.2 rebounds) have played major roles, despite nagging injuries.
Center Charlotte Quinn, forwards Margaret Planek and Kelly Carpenter and a plethora of guards including Bailey Forde, Chance Baggett, Gianni Ortiz, Mackenzie Berschel and Audrey Hetzer have seen plenty of playing time as well. Other than Forde, they all return next year.
“You may not think it would be a fun year for us based on our record, but we all love each other,” Moore said. “There’s not a lot of drama. We’re having fun.”
Off the court, Power, Sheard, Blaze and Forde appeared on the Oak Park-based radio show, “The Doris Davenport Show with Doug Wyman” earlier this season.
“That was a fun experience and good exposure for the program,” Power said. “I think the girls really got a kick out of being in the studio.”
In analyzing area teams, the argument certainly could be made we saved the best for last.
Despite a tumultuous start this season (which included a head coaching change from Ed Stritzel to Mike Valente and uncharacteristic 4-3 record), the Blazers have resurfaced in their customary position of state title contender.
Last season, Trinity advanced to a supersectional final before losing to Homewood-Flossmoor.
With seniors Annie McKenna and Kaitlin Aylward leading the way this season, the Blazers (18-5) might be ready to take the final few elusive steps to winning a state title.
“I can’t believe it’s my last year,” McKenna said. “It’s been fun. I still have that goal of a state championship and that will never change.”
Lauren Lee, Dee Brown, Alisa Fallon and Alex Fanning complement McKenna and Aylward as key rotation players.
Annie Stritzel, one of the best freshmen in the state, has been a nice addition to the roster. She scored 17 points in a win against Fenwick this season.
As long as the Blazers shoot well and create turnovers for easy baskets, the offense will continue to run smoothly. While Trinity is capable of winning in a variety of ways, the Blazers function best in an up-termpo style of play at both ends of the floor.