Well, another remarkable high school sports year (my third as Wednesday Journal sports editor) is officially in the books.
The awards haul for our three local high schools, collectively, is quite impressive, including three state championships plus multiple supersectional, sectional, regional and conference titles.
With due respect to these accomplishments, however, what struck me in retrospect, thinking about the players and coaches I covered this year, is the gamut of emotions they produced.
After the OPRF High School softball team rallied for a 4-2 win in 10 innings over Normal West in the state final of the Class 4A playoffs, junior pitcher Chardonnay Harris was overwhelmed.
“It brings me to tears,” Harris said. “It’s probably the best thing I’ve ever felt so far in my life, maybe until the day I get married.”
The Fenwick girls water polo and OPRF wrestling teams expressed similar sentiments after their state title wins.
The Friars pulled off an incredible championship game victory in the pool, edging Naperville Central 13-12 in double-overtime en route to their ninth state title in 13 years.
“It feels really amazing to go out my senior year being state champs,” Fenwick senior Catie Wallace said. “The feeling is indescribable.”
OPRF wrestling won its third straight state championship (and fourth overall) with a 33-24 victory against Marmion.
“There’s a sense of finality that I don’t have with the rest of [the titles],” said senior Gabe Townsell, who will attend Stanford in the fall. “It’s the end of my career here. I got to go out with a win. I feel like I’m on the top of the world right now.”
The juggernaut Huskies also produced three individual state champions — senior Isaiah White (30-0) at 160 pounds, junior Jason Renteria (22-0) at 120, and Stallings (34-3) at 220.
“It’s great. I love it. I’m just sad that it’s over,” White said. “It just flew by.”
On the other end of the emotional spectrum, Fenwick mourned the loss of Johnny Lattner. The famous Fenwick alumnus died at the age of 83 in his Melrose Park home on Feb. 12 after battling mesothelioma, a type of lung cancer.
Lattner won the 1953 Heisman Trophy at the University of Notre Dame, played briefly for the Pittsburgh Steelers, appeared on the cover of Time Magazine with the words “a bread-and-butter ball carrier,” and served in the U.S. Air Force.
“We never lose sight of the fact, Johnny is a legend,” Fenwick head football coach Gene Nudo said. “Fenwick has had students who have become astronauts, CEOs, Pulitzer Prize winners, and professional athletes. Johnny is certainly part of that heritage in which our students go on to be difference-makers in life.”
No story stirred up conflicting emotions and opinions quite like the acrimonious breakup between head basketball coach Ed Stritzel and Trinity High School. Stritzel, the winningest coach in school history with a 236-51 record over nine seasons, was forced out on Nov. 30, one day before he was to return from a 30-day suspension for an alleged recruiting violation.
In the spring, Nazareth High School athletic director Duane Buturusis hired Stritzel to coach the girls basketball team.
As for the Blazers, Mike Valente replaced Stritzel, and the team finished 30-6 and third in the Class 4A state playoffs.
“Everything that’s happened this year makes us the team we are today,” Valente said after the Blazers’ 63-47 win over Whitney Young in the third-place game at state. “I love this team. That’s all I wanted for this team was to end this season on a win.”
Here are some other notable teams that shaped this school year’s compelling narrative:
During the fall, the OPRF football team turned in another successful season under coach John Hoerster. Powered by running back Antonio Cannon, linebacker Jahmari Moore, and defensive end Allen Stallings (who will all play Division I college football next season), the Huskies finished 9-2 and lost 41-26 to Palatine in the second round of the 8A playoffs.
“Our team has a lot be proud about this year,” Hoerster said. “I hope they can look back years from now and feel good about what they accomplished. Our kids did some really great things this season.”
A team to keep an eye on for the future is OPRF girls swimming. With returning talent like Natalie Ungaretti, Hanna Blankemeier and Alexandra Gill, the Huskies will try to build off their sixth-place finish at the state finals in 2015.
Led by seniors Theresa Mullen, Catherine Clancy and Erin Scudder, Fenwick finished right behind OPRF with a seventh-place showing at the girls swimming state finals.
Overall, Fenwick flourished during the fall sports season as the boys cross-country and golf teams each finished fifth in the state and the girls volleyball team won 24 matches en route to a supersectional appearance and the best season in program history.
During the winter, the Fenwick boys basketball team went 28-3 and claimed a Chicago Catholic League championship. Led by all-state point guard Mike Smith and versatile forwards Mike Ballard and Jacob Keller, the Friars notched victories over highly regarded teams like OPRF, Simeon, Whitney Young, Bogan, Riverside-Brookfield and St. Joseph.
In girls basketball, Fenwick coach Dave Power notched his 900th career win. He became just the second girls basketball coach in Illinois history to reach the 900-win plateau, joining Marshall’s Dorothy Gaters.
In OPRF hoops, the girls won a conference championship and the boys recorded 17 wins despite several key injuries toward the end of the season.
Amid a busy spring, track and field teams performed well as OPRF, Fenwick and Trinity all garnered Top 15 showings at the state finals.
In the Class 2A finals, the Friars’ Grace Cronin won the 300-meter low hurdles in a school-record 42.91 seconds to become the school’s first girls state champion in the sport.
“That’s a good feeling. I love representing my school and it’s so nice to bring them a state championship for track,” Cronin said. “It just felt really good to finally get it. Not to fall short of it, but to actually get it.”Cronin finished second to Brooks sophomore Imani Carothers (13.92) in the 100 hurdles. She closed out her stellar career at Fenwick with a program-best seven all-state medals
Fueled by Irwin Loud, who garnered a pair of top-five finishes in distance running, the OPRF boys track and field team placed 10th at the state meet.
The OPRF badminton team tied Hinsdale Central for fifth in the state as singles player Rei Uemaki (a foreign exchange student from Japan) became the first state medalist for the Huskies since 1984. Senior Maya Trinka (28-6) also performed well, winning four of six matches in singles at state.
In baseball, OPRF edged host Lane Tech 1-0 in eight innings to secure the Huskies’ 31st regional championship in 36 seasons.
The improbable feel good story on the diamond, though, belonged to Fenwick.
The Friars (20-20) got off to one of the worst starts in Dave Hogan’s 33-year coaching career, but they overcame inexperience and ineptitude to play their best ball when it mattered most.
Fenwick won just its second sectional title despite having only one senior starting position player and a losing record in the regular season. The Friars’ inspired playoff run ended with a 12-4 loss to St. Viator at the Class 3A North Central College Supersectional.
“I know there’s a lot of tears now, but for goodness sake, we got down to the final eight,” Hogan said. “I don’t want to lose, but you could see the hunger in the younger guys who are going to be back next year.”
We culminated the sports year with Wednesday Journal’s second annual Night of Champions on June 15 at West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park.
At the party, which drew approximately 200 guests, the following winners were recognized: Coach of the Year, Kathleen O’Laughlin, Fenwick girls volleyball; Excellence Award, Grace Cronin, Fenwick track and field; Female Team of the Year, OPRF softball and Fenwick water polo; Female Athlete of the Year, Annie McKenna, Trinity basketball; Male Team of the Year, Fenwick basketball; Male Athlete of the Year, Mike Smith, Fenwick basketball; Most Inspirational Athlete of the Year, Samantha Linde, OPRF softball and Grey Small, OPRF hockey.
See you next season!