Welcome to another edition of “Tate’s Take.” This week, I am recapping the scintillating season the Fenwick High School boys basketball enjoyed this winter.
Where do we begin with the Friars? Fenwick had a historic, memorable and thoroughly entertaining campaign with the following highlights: a 30-5 record (30 wins is the school record for most wins in a single season), third straight Chicago Catholic League championship, regional, sectional and supersectional titles, and a trip to the state finals where they finished as a state runner-up in the Class 3A state playoffs (best result in school history). Fenwick also earned a state trophy for the first time in program history.
Rick Malnati showed why he is one of the state’s best coaches. His team was well-prepared and always gave its all every game. As cliché as it sounds, the Friars truly play hard. They probably produce more sneakers squeaks than any team in the state.
Add equally effective measures of talent, teamwork, discipline and determination and you’ve got a winner. Malnati does two things particularly well: make pizza and coach basketball.
The affable coach has quickly turned a very good program into a perennial powerhouse. And memo to all CCL teams and other opponents, Friar basketball should be strong for several years to come.
An excellent high school basketball program not only has great coaching, it also has top talent. Fenwick certainly had the players to win regularly and compete with any team in the state.
Jacob Keller, who will play football at Northern Iowa in the fall, did it all for the Friars at the point guard position. Need a comparison? How about about UCLA guard Lonzo Ball. Both can score, pass, rebound and defend. Most of all, they are winners who make their teammates better.
As a Class 7A All-State quarterback, he drew comparisons by some Fenwick fans to Cam Newton by both his look and ability.
Keller seemed to not let the bitter football ending – the “Travesty at Triton” (18-17 loss in overtime against Plainfield North in 7A state semifinals) – affect his play on the court in a negative way. If anything, he actually used the postseason debacle courtesy of inept game officials to fuel him to a strong basketball season. Keller is The Ultimate Competitor and will be missed.
Keller shared the spotlight with his close buddy Jamal Nixon, a senior forward who supplied a strong inside presence. Keller and Nixon have played basketball together since second grade. Sadly, that on-court association ended after the state finals loss to Morgan Park. Nixon, who has the most wins in program history at Fenwick (102), will continue his career at Minnesota State.
DJ Steward was a revelation. Despite entering Fenwick as a highly touted freshman, the gifted 6-foot-1 guard wasn’t expecting much if any playing time at the varsity level. The football team’s extended run in the playoffs, however, gave him an opportunity and he capitalized in a big way. By the end of the season, I felt Steward was becoming a dominant player.
He capped off the season with a perfect shooting performance in the 3A title game against Morgan Park. Steward, from Oak Park, went 10-for-10 from the field (including 2 3-pointers), and 4-for-4 from the free-throw line for a game-high 26 points.
Unfortunately, Steward’s electric performance wasn’t enough. Keller and Nixon fouled out late in regulation and the short-handed Friars fell to Morgan Park 69-67 in overtime.
The Friars’ undoing could also be attributed to another freshman, Morgan Park’s Nimari Burnett who made a trio of incredibly clutch 3-pointers in overtime and finished with 24 points.
Looking ahead to next season, Steward headlines a strong cast of returnees including Billy Bruce, Mike O’Laughlin, AJ Nixon, Damari Nixon, and Sam Daniels.
Look for the Friars to have another strong season in 2017-2018.