The OPRF and Fenwick boys basketball teams square off at the Chicago Elite Classic on Friday, Nov. 30 at Wintrust Arena in Chicago. Tip-off is 9 p.m. (Courtesy of Chicago Elite Classic)

Hey there, sports fans! It’s Wednesday Journal sports contributing reporter Melvin Tate. Sports editor Marty Farmer and I had so much fun doing joint columns with predictions during the football season, we decided to do another one for the Oak Park and River Forest vs. Fenwick boys basketball showdown Friday, Nov. 30  at Wintrust Arena in Chicago’s South Loop. Tip-off is 9 p.m. by the way if you’re headed to the game.

In recent seasons, both the Huskies and Friars have enjoyed stellar records. Both schools are usually in the Chicago area’s Top 25 rankings, and the highly competitive games have generated tremendous excitement among players, coaches, students and fans. 

This year’s matchup features a unique twist. While OPRF was ranked in the preseason top 10, Fenwick wasn’t ranked at all. The departure of head coach Rick Malnati along with the transfers of star players D.J. Steward (Whitney Young) and Damari Nixon (Curie) were the likely cause of the Friars being unranked.

OPRF would be making a grave mistake to feel that the Friars will be a pushover. That is far from the case. Fenwick still has good and experienced talent on the roster in sophomore forward Bryce Hopkins and senior forwards Lucas Kolovitz and Solomon Oraegbu. The Friars also have a pair of solid freshmen guards in Kaden Cobb and Trey Pettigrew. Add in the fact new head coach Staunton Peck gained plenty of knowledge from Malnati both as a player and as an assistant coach, and the makings are there of a good team that will be tough to beat.

On the other hand, OPRF features plenty of balance. Seniors Dashon Enoch and Charlie Hoehne have played significant roles in the Huskies winning back-to-back West Suburban Conference Silver Division titles (including a perfect league record last season, the first time that has happened for OPRF since the conference split into Gold and Silver divisions). Senior forward Anthony Roberts and senior guard Chase Robinson have emerged as solid contributors as well. Plus, there is promising young talent in sophomores Isaiah Barnes and Josh Smith. Head coach Matt Maloney does a good job in gradually improving his team as the season progresses.

Last year, OPRF snapped a six-game losing streak to Fenwick in a dramatic contest at the Chicago Elite Classic. The Friars will be hungry to gain revenge and assuredly will bring it for four quarters. As always, this will be a close, exciting game. Normally, the revenge factor in a rivalry like this would be sufficient. While Fenwick will undoubtedly have plenty of motivation, I think the Huskies’ superior balance and depth will be enough to secure the win.

I’ll go with my Tate’s Take of: OPRF 67, Fenwick 60. – Melvin Tate

Marty, the floor is yours. What do you think?

Thanks, Melvin. It’s always a pleasure to prognosticate games with (or should I say) against you. Let’s face it, we are the Michigan-Ohio State game of predictions. Scatch that, bad example unless you live in Columbus, Ohio. Let’s go with Army vs. Navy.

If memory serves me correctly, we split on a couple of football games so this is the tiebreaker. You called the Huskies’ upset win over Glenbard West in football so that established your credibility for the rest of the sports year! However, I correctly called Brother Rice to take out the Huskies in the 8A playoffs to even our tally at 1-1.

Unlike those matchups, this one really hits home with crosstown rivals OPRF and Fenwick and their devoted fans meeting yet again at the Chicago Elite Classic. I wish I could form a detailed breakdown of the Huskies and Friars, but frankly, your analysis looks spot on. I can’t believe I am being so agreeable with you, but yes, OPRF enters the game as the favorite.

Despite a surprisingly lopsided loss against Riverside-Brookfield, the Huskies are off to a good start with a 4-1 record. OPRF has already notched a tremendous victory over St. Rita (one of the best coach Matt Maloney has had at OPRF by his own admission) and a conference-opening win against Hinsdale Central. What’s scary is the Huskies have ample room for improvement per Maloney. I agree with him.

OPRF has a great mix of veterans and newcomers, not to mention, balance, versatility and athleticism. Last year, as you mentioned Melvin, the Huskies snapped an extended losing streak against Fenwick. I remember Maloney and the players feeling both joy and relief after that result at the 2017 Chicago Elite Classic.

As for Fenwick, change is the operative word around the program. With the departures of Malnati, Steward, Damari Nixon, Michael O’Laughlin, AJ Nixon and Billy Bruce for assorted reasons, fans may want to pick up a roster at the CEC simply for ID purposes.

Fortunately, the Friars’ future looks bright under Peck. Oraegbu and Kolovitz will provide much-needed leadership against OPRF on a big stage tonight. Hopkins and Pettigrew have tremendous upside. It will be interesting to see how they handle the bright lights of the Chicago Elite Classic. Their talent suggests they will be fine; however, they are underclassmen with inexperience. OPRF sophomores Isaiah Barnes and Josh Smith will face the same unpredictable scenario.

Fenwick is off to a 2-1 start this season. Peck is optimistic the Friars’ time is not only in the future but now.

“I think we will compete for a CCL championship again this year,” he said. “This will be a young, fun group to coach with great senior leadership. We will play fast on offense and use our depth as our strength.”

In recent years, Fenwick has dominated the Chicago Catholic League. OPRF has torn up the West Suburban Conference Silver Division as well. Both teams are battle-tested every year, and this season will be no exception. Viewed as the underdog, the Friars are more than capable of earning a win tonight. They will need to execute on both ends of the floor, stay out of foul trouble and match or likely exceed the Huskies’ intensity.

In terms of an X factor, the students turn out for both teams en masse. Consequently, support should be a wash. On an aside, fashion is always notable at this game. The Huskie fans typically form a sea of orange and blue. The Fenwick kids have opted for “ugly” Christmas sweaters in the past.

The really cool part about the fans is that they create the best atmosphere of the Chicago Elite Classic every year. High profile Chicago teams like Whitney Young and Simeon plus national powers like Mater Dei from California and St. Vincent-St. Mary from Ohio (LeBron James’ alma mater) may provide the best basketball but nowhere near the rivalry of our Oak Park squads.

Regardless of which team wins, the encouraging news is OPRF and Fenwick should both be better basketball teams when it really counts – the postseason.

In recent CEC matchups (other than last year), Fenwick has had star senior players like Mike Smith, Jacob Keller and Jamal Nixon power the team past the Huskies in their annual meeting. Lacking that kind of experienced player this year, coupled with the Huskies having four seniors of note, my Fearless Farmer pick is: OPRF 72, Fenwick 61. – Marty Farmer

Finally, we agree Melvin. The tiebreaker lives on.

Happy Holidays, Huskies and Friars!

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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...

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