Historic sites and storied teams are part of the backdrop as the Fenwick High School boys basketball team embarks on what it hopes is a long playoff run.
The Friars won their second straight regional championship and fourth in the past five seasons when they routed Noble UIC Prep 81-52 on Friday at the Class 3A King Regional final.
It was the 13th straight victory for Fenwick (26-4) which will host Westinghouse in Tuesday’s Fenwick Sectional semifinals.
“It was a case where we were the better team by a stretch,” Fenwick coach Rick Malnati said. “That’s what happens when you’re the get the No. 1 seed.”
Senior Jacob Keller and freshman DJ Steward each scored a game-high 20 points for the Friars, while senior forward Jamal Nixon added a double-double.
The victory occurred on the home court of King, which won state championships in 1986, 1990 and 1993 under coach Landon Cox. But the Friars didn’t linger and passed on the chance to cut down the nets
“We didn’t do that,” Malnati said. “We went about our business, got our trophy, took a picture and got out of there.”
Now the competition takes a huge leap in difficulty. The three other teams in the sectional are from the Chicago Public League’s vaunted Red-West Division.
Westinghouse has won five state trophies, including the 2002 state title. North Lawndale (22-7) won the Class 2A state title in 2008 and takes on Farragut (14-9) in the other semifinal on Wednesday. Farragut made the state quarterfinals in 1995 with Kevin Garnett and Ronnie Fields in the lineup and again in 2004. The Admirals lost in the sectional last year.
“It’s a challenge,” Malnati said. “It’s kind of a Red-West conference season-ending tournament.
“I think (the Friars) are aware of (the history) but they’re also living it, so you don’t really think about it. But they’re excited.
“We just have to continue to work and get over the hump of winning a sectional.”
The Friars have won only two sectional titles in school history. Those came in 1997 and 1998 under John Quinn and featured future NBA player Corey Maggette.
Nixon, a Minnesota State recruit, recently broke Maggettte’s school record of 93 wins. The Friars have 98 wins since Nixon and Malnati arrived for the 2013-14 season.
Fenwick lost in a sectional final to St. Joseph last season, so winning a sectional at home to give Malnati his 100th win at the Oak Park school would be epic.
“This is the first time in my coaching career that I’ve hosted a sectional,” said Malnati, who previously coached at New Trier. “I don’t think (home court advantage) is going to win it for us but it will help.
“We’ve only lost one game at home in the last two years, so there’s a comfort level there.”
That should be the case against Westinghouse, which lost a 61-45 decision on Nov. 25 at Fenwick’s John Malone Tournament.
“When we played Westinghouse we had a couple guys out and they had a couple guys out, so it will be interesting,” Malnati said. “But we’re peaking at the right time.”
The Friars are doing it with a healthy and unselfish roster that is playing well together and confident after playing a tough schedule.
“We’ve got good leadership and the younger players aren’t playing like young players anymore,” Malnati said. “Sometimes there is a special bond on a team where (the individual parts rise about the collective talent level) and we have a chance to be that kind of team.”
Two victories this week, including a hoped-for net-cutting ceremony after Friday night’s title game, would do the trick.
“It would be nice to get (win number) 100 on Friday night,” Malnati said. “But we’ve got to get 99 on Tuesday first.