One of the Fenwick High School boys basketball team’s primary goals this season has been to play in the final of every tournament it plays in.
So far the Friars are 3-for-3 in that regard, with finals victories in the John Malone Thanksgiving Tournament and Chicago Catholic League Tournament and a loss in the Proviso West Holiday Tournament championship game.
If the Friars advance to a fourth and final title game, they will be vying for a Class 3A state championship.
Entering the postseason with a 25-2 record, including impressive wins over Whitney Young, Bogan, Simeon, Riverside-Brookfield and St. Joseph (twice), Fenwick is looking to put an exclamation point on an already remarkable campaign.
Of course, the state tournament signifies essentially the start of a new season and the Friars will approach it accordingly.
“Our team’s mindset going into the playoffs is to take it one game at a time,” forward Jamal Nixon said. “We’re not looking past any one game because anything can happen. Our goal is to win a state championship, but we know it’s still five games to get there, and it won’t be easy.
“We have to play our game, which is playing hard and playing together. We also have to follow the game plan the coaches prepare for us.”
Adhering to coach Rick Malnati’s game plan would be wise. The CCL North Division Coach of the Year has maximized the Friars’ ability despite a relatively small lineup and thin bench.
“Coach Malnati always has us well prepared for everything we do, whether it’s in practice or a game,” forward Jacob Keller said. “What also makes him a great coach is that he always knows what to do and run in the right situations.
“People don’t see the caring side of him during games, but during practice and the week, he’s one of the most caring people I know on and off the court.”
The Friars have versatile players who are equipped to play in Malnati’s challenging system.
Senior point guard Mike Smith, the CCL North Division Player of the Year has been averaging 19 points, four assists, three rebounds and two steals while also shooting 43 percent on 3-pointers.
Senior forward Mike Ballard, who made the CCL North First Team with Smith, is averaging 11 points, 4.5 rebounds and shooting 40 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.
Keller (10 points, 4 rebounds per game), Nixon (8 ppg, 6 rpg) and senior guard Quinn Fisher (6 ppg, 40 percent on 3-pointers) round out the starting lineup. Every starter has point guard skills.
Seniors Jay Militello and Charlie Boyle are key reserves.
For all their offensive prowess, the Friars believe their effectiveness on the other end of the court will be critical to any postseason success.
“The biggest keys for us will be rebounding and defending the paint,” Fisher said. “If we can do those things, we know we can beat any team in the state.”
Fenwick is the No. 1 seed in the Westinghouse Sectional. The regional host Friars opened the playoffs on Tuesday, March 1 (past deadline) against the winner between a pair from Chicago’s Noble Network of Charter Schools, Golder vs. DRW. With a win, Fenwick advances to the regional final on Friday, March 4 at 7 p.m.
State contenders North Lawndale and St. Joseph landed in the same sectional as Fenwick. Morgan Park, Bogan, Vocational and Hillcrest are other top teams in 3A.
“This basketball season has been the most fun couple months of my life,” Ballard said. “I have made so many memories that I will always remember. We are looking forward to making more this March.”
OPRF enters 4A playoffs on a roll
Highly ranked in most preseason polls, the Huskies experienced a tale of two regular seasons.
After an erratic 6-8 start, OPRF rebounded nicely, winning 10 of its last 13 games highlighted by a 92-75 victory against Proviso East in the regular season finale.
“It was a roller coaster ride, but we just had to get over the hump,” senior forward Connor Fuller said about the start of the season. “Once we got over the hump, everything came together and now we’re ready for the playoffs.”
Although the Huskies enter the Class 4A playoffs without starting forward Jared Scott and senior guard Sam Francis (both had season-ending injuries), the team has been fortified by the rapid development of underclassmen guards Dashon Enoch and Isaiah Fuller. Senior Breshawn Wilkerson, junior forward Cameron Gross and Connor Fuller have anchored the starting lineup all season.
OPRF (16-11) will look to push the tempo with its self-described “Huskie Havoc” style of play during the postseason.
“We think of ‘Huskie Havoc’ as organized chaos,” OPRF coach Matt Maloney said. “With our length and athleticism, we like to play aggressively on defense, which can lead to easier baskets in transition. ‘Huskie Havoc’ is a great source of pride within the program and really our identity as a team.”
Wilkerson, along with brother tandems, Deandre and Dashon Enoch and Connor and Isaiah Fuller, apply pressure defensively on the perimeter. Eddie Gorens and Malachi Ross provide an interior defensive presence.
Offensively, the Huskies offer similar balance with the versatile Gross (16.4 points, 7.1 rebounds per game) emerging as the team’s top scorer and rebounder.
“I feel more confident scoring now,” Gross said. “I put in a lot of hard work last summer and I shoot free throws after practice. I love playing for Coach Maloney. He tells me just to have fun out there and play my game.”
Wilkerson (11.7 ppg), Connor Fuller (9.7 ppg) and Dashon Enoch (7.3 ppg) are capable scorers as well.
The Huskies are the No. 7 seed in the Riverside-Brookfield Sectional. The six teams seeded above them (in order) are Curie, Kenwood, Riverside-Brookfield, Whitney Young, De La Salle and Proviso East.
“I think we have the toughest sectional in any class of the state playoffs,” Maloney said. “That’s why we loaded our schedule so we would be battle-tested for the postseason.”
OPRF takes on the winner of Morton vs. Juarez on Wednesday (7 p.m.) in the semifinals of the Morton Regional.