Fenwick cruised past St. Viator 65-36 to win the Class 3A Sears Centre Supersectional title.The Friars (29-4) advance to the state semifinals where they will face Bloomington Friday, March 17. (Photo by Marie Lillig)

Senior quarterback Jacob Keller’s dream of leading Fenwick to its first state football trophy died when the IHSA shafted the Friars out of a spot in the Class 7A championship game last November.

But no one could deny Keller and his teammates on Tuesday night.

Playing a quarterback of a different sort, Keller tallied eight points, four steals and two assists to help Fenwick’s boys basketball team to a historic 65-36 victory over St. Viator at the Class 3A Sears Centre Supersectional in Hoffman Estates.

The Friars (29-4) set a new school record for wins and secured the first trophy in program history. They will play Bloomington in the Class 3A state semifinals at 11 a.m. Friday at Carver Arena in Peoria.

“It feels good,” Keller said. “There are two other football players on the team (senior Jack Henige and junior Mike O’Laughlin) and we’ve been thinking about the (controversial loss to Plainfield North in a state semifinal) ever since it happened.

“So we’ve been working hard to get in this position to make it Downstate and we played well enough. We’re really excited to finally get over the hump.

“It would have been the first trophy for football. It is the first for basketball.”

In reaching the state semifinals for the first time, the Friars erased several years of postseason frustration. They have won 101 games over the past four seasons but had not won a sectional until last Friday, losing in the sectional final last year to St. Joseph.

Minnesota State-bound senior forward Jamal Nixon wasn’t on the football team, but he was a part of three Fenwick basketball teams that had come up short.

“The teams have been so close and we’ve grown closer over the years,” Nixon said. “My freshman year we lost in the sectional and sophomore year was particularly hard for me because I was out with a knee injury and had to sit through a loss by three to Curie in the regional final.

“Last year was a really tough one. This year we came in focused, just using the fuel from last year.

“We knew we had our sights set on something and we knew could do something special if we all just played together and played hard and were unselfish. That’s what we’ve done the whole season and that’s how we’ve got to this point.”

And that’s how the Friars, who have won 16 straight, got it done against upstart St. Viator (15-17), the last team with a losing record left in the playoffs.

Nixon had 13 points and a game-high eight rebounds, while freshman guard DJ Steward led all scorers with 16 points. Steward scored seven points during the third quarter, including five straight to complete a 9-0 run to give Fenwick a 38-20 lead.

The Friars went scoreless for nearly four minutes to start the game until Steward tied the game on a putback and then gave his team its first lead with a finger roll.

The Lions regained the lead, 6-4, on a layup by Jeremiah Hernandez, who had a team-high 11 points, but Billy Bruce answered with a 3-pointer and Fenwick never trailed again.

“I think it would have been easy for them to look past this game a little bit,” Fenwick coach Rick Malnati said. “At the beginning I don’t think we looked past the game; we just didn’t make any shots. But our defense held tight and we were resilient.”

Indeed, the Friars have been winning with defense and it was air-tight against the Lions, who shot just 30 percent. Nixon shut down St. Viator’s 6-foot-8 center, Addison Lubert, who scored just two points and attempted only three shots

Bruce, a 6-2 junior guard, did his part, securing six rebounds to go with four steals and two assists. He also scored five points, including a terrific steal of an outlet pass underneath the St. Viator basket and quick layup.

“Everything starts with defense,” Nixon said. “Right from the jump (we) just got on them, we got out in transition – that’s what we’re best at – and then got easy baskets.

“We knew we had to get out to a good start on defense, come out with intensity and be the aggressor, and once we locked in on doing that, that set the tone for the game.”

Junior AJ Nixon added 10 points for the Friars, who also got three points each from gridiron veterans O’Laughlin and Henige.

Junior guard Mike Fiorito also got a measure of revenge, scoring five points in the final two minutes. Fiorito is a member of Fenwick’s baseball team, which lost to St. Viator in the supersectional last spring.

“People have grown into their roles,” Jamal Nixon said. “We all got better over the year and we don’t care who scores, who the star is.

“We play together and look out for each other and like to see each other succeed. That’s the biggest thing.

“We’re unselfish and we have a lot of character. That’s what tonight and all year has shown.”

Malnati, who now has guided two different schools to the state semifinals, attributes that to the leadership of Jamal Nixon and Keller, who will play quarterback at Northern Iowa.

“My first year here I got Jamal and Jacob, a pretty big combo,” Malnati said. “I think we’ve got the best point guard in the state and the best post guy in the state. I wouldn’t trade them for anything.”

While Morgan Park, which plays Springfield Lanphier in the other semifinal, is favored to win the state title, Malnati would like nothing more than for Keller to go out a winner.

“Jacob and I talked about that the first day (of the season),” Malnati said. “What a cool ending it would be if (at) his last high school sporting event, he was handed a first-place trophy, something he was denied (in football).

“That would be an unbelievable ending. We’re still 64 minutes and a lot of hard work away, but that would be cool.

“And I’d like to have the football coach (Gene Nudo) come and accept the trophy, get all those football players down on the floor and celebrate with us.”

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