Entering Saturday night’s high school girls basketball game, Trinity had defeated visiting Oak Park and River Forest approximately 20 straight seasons.
The local matchup has been called a rivalry by title rather than reality.
“This is known as a rivalry game, but it really hasn’t been a rivalry because we don’t win,” OPRF coach J.P. Coughlin said. “It might have been close to 20 years since we last defeated them.”
At least for this season, the narrative has finally changed in the Huskies’ favor after their 52-37 victory over the Blazers in River Forest.
“When coach told us (about the losing streak), we said ‘Let’s step it up,'” OPRF senior guard Ahsha Spencer said. “(OPRF senior) Darse (Sanchez) and I said to ourselves that we lost to them in overtime last year and we can’t lose to them this year. We’re going to beat them at their house like they beat us at our house. We came in with that mentality. We worked hard in practice and in the film room so we were ready.”
Spencer, one of the best players in the West Suburban Conference, turned in another stat-sheet stuffing performance with a game-high 21 points, 12 rebounds and six assists.
“I thought Ahsha played a really mature game at point guard,” Coughlin said. “In addition to her leadership, Ahsha knows when to slow down and when to explode and take over. She’s growing as a person and a player. I’m pretty lucky to have her because she’s one of the better point guards in the state.”
OPRF set the early tone with its pressure defense, forcing 10 turnovers in the first quarter. Consequently, an early 6-4 Trinity lead quickly evaporated as OPRF went on a 14-0 run to close out the quarter.
“The energy before games during warmups is where it starts,” Spencer said. “When everybody’s pumped up and real aggressive on defense, we get steals and easy layups so that felt good. Defense is what will win us games this year. We’re going to be a good defensive team.”
Although Trinity’s new coach Kim Coleman praised the Huskies for setting the tempo, she was not pleased with the Blazers’ abysmal shooting.
“(OPRF) did a good job of pushing the pace,” Coleman said. “Our kids fought and played hard the entire game, which is always nice. But we shot 21 percent from the field. I don’t think the Golden State Warriors could win a game shooting like that. We’re going to learn from this and keep it moving.”
Besides aggressive defense, a healthy Sanchez helped the Huskies’ cause. Sanchez, who has been injured often during her varsity career, scored 13 points in the first half to power OPRF to a 27-16 advantage at halftime. Spencer took over in the third quarter, tallying nine points to extend the lead to 45-27 after three quarters.
“We’re tiny so we’ve got to pressure the ball quite a bit,” Coughlin said of the team’s defensive strategy. “Once we built a safe enough lead, getting into foul trouble and getting into a chaotic game wasn’t in our best interest.
“We pulled back in the second half, which is something we normally don’t do,” he added. “I had a bad feeling about foul trouble, plus we turned the ball over a few times to start the second half. We don’t play half-court defense often, but we decided to do it in the second half. It paid off for us. It was a really good team win.”
Sanchez finished with 16 points for OPRF. The Huskies also received valuable bench contributions from junior center Karly Cantrell (8 points, 8 rebounds), and senior guard Faith Smith (7 points).
In addition to talent and experience, the Huskies (6-4) have chemistry.
“This group plays together and for each other,” Coughlin said. “That goes a long way. Having two dynamic senior guards like Ahsha and Darse goes a long way too.
“This was the first game Karly didn’t start, she had four points the entire season.” Coughlin added. “To get that boost from her was huge. Faith was awesome off the bench.”
Trinity struggled due to poor shooting, turnovers and foul trouble. Highly touted sophomore forward Makiyah Williams was called for three fouls in the first half. Playing limited minutes, she finished with a team-high 10 points.
“(Williams) is a fantastic player,” Coughlin said. “She can do everything. And she’s only a sophomore which is scary.”
Junior forward Lauren Saleh had eight points, while sophomore guard Savannah Childress added six points for Trinity.
On a positive note, the Blazers dominated the glass. Saleh and Williams had 10 rebounds apiece.
“We learned a few games back that we had to rebound,” Coleman said. “Moving forward, that’s the number one responsibility. Everyone needs to rebound. You can’t win games if you don’t. I was proud with how we handled ourselves on the boards, and I’m sure we’ll continue to do that as the season goes along.”
Under Coleman’s guidance, the Blazers (5-4) are looking to develop an identity. With only two seniors, Trinity has several young players understandably finding their way.
This year, they’ll be without the services of promising junior guard Dayjah Chmielewski, who is out for the season with an ACL injury that she suffered during the offseason.
“Dayjah is a big loss for us,” Coleman said. “She’s been a starter on the varsity the last two seasons. But we have a lot of kids who are hungry and ready to fill the role. It’s all about putting the pieces together and trusting each other. We’re heading in the right direction. It’s all about patience.”
Coughlin believes it’s just a matter of time before Trinity regains its status as one of the Chicago area’s best programs.
“Trinity is a great program,” he said. “Kim’s going to have them rolling. They’re really well-coached. It won’t take her long to get this program back to the top.”