Fenwick sophomore DJ Steward has a knack for playing well in big games. He'll need to be a key contributor if the Friars hope to earn an extended stay in the Class 4A state playoffs. (File photo)

The Fenwick and Oak Park and River Forest High School boys basketball teams squared off at the Chicago Elite Classic on Dec. 1. The Huskies won the game, 64-59, and bragging rights around town.

A rematch could occur on Friday, Mar. 9 in the Riverside-Brookfield Sectional final if both teams win three games apiece. While the prospect of Friars-Huskies II is tantalizing for local hoops fans, much work remains to be done by both teams.

Top sectional seed Curie and second seed/defending state champion Whitney Young are the best candidates to prevent a Fenwick/OPRF clash. The rest of the 22-team sectional is littered with dangerous squads like Proviso East, Lincoln Park, St. Joseph, York and Riverside-Brookfield.

Fenwick (19-7, 8-0 Chicago Catholic League Blue), which finished second in the state in the Class 3A playoffs last year, readied themselves for all comers with a brutal regular-season schedule. The Friars, who are on a 38-game winning streak in conference, won their third straight Chicago Catholic League Blue title this season.

While the Friars possess plenty of firepower offensively with DJ Steward, Damari Nixon, AJ Nixon and Michael O’Laughlin, defense fuels their success.

“Whenever we’re slumping on offense, we can always rely on the defense to give us a boost,” O’Laughlin said. “Coach [Rick] Malnati stresses that if we don’t play good defense, it’s going to be tough, if not impossible, to win.”

Although Steward is recognized as an elite player nationally, Fenwick is balanced.

“It’s not just about one player with this team,” Malnati said. “We have five guys who can put up great numbers.”

Like Fenwick, the baseline for winning at OPRF is defense. Employing their “Huskie Havoc” approach of pressuring the ball and creating turnovers, the Huskies (22-5, 12-0) cruised to the West Suburban Conference Silver Division title.

OPRF boasts depth and versatility with terrific perimeter players like Isaiah Fuller, Dashon Enoch, Chase Robinson and Sidney Allgood. The Huskies are effective in the paint as well with Malachi Ross, Charlie Hoehne, Anthony Roberts and Phil Saleh.

The Huskies’ execution and intensity will be of paramount importance in the postseason.

“We definitely need to work on improving our communication on the court,” Fuller said. “Everyone has to be on the same page.”

Saleh added, “We’ve got to work on defense and talk. Once we start talking, we gain energy and play better.”

Whether or not Fenwick and OPRF meet again, the playoffs promise excitement with its survive-and-advance format.

“We’ve got to play every single game like it’s our last,” Ross said. “We’ve got to stay focused and just have fun.”

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Marty Farmer

The Illinois Press Association recently honored Marty with the 1st & 2nd Place Awards for Best Sports Feature for his article He's in an Oak Park state of mind: Former OPRF star Iman Shumpert returns...