With all due respect to the time-honored tradition of the NCAA mens basketball tournament affectionately known as “March Madness,” Illinois high school girls basketball teams can’t wait that long to get it on the hardwood.
A “February Frenzy” of IHSA games begins this week with single-elimination tournaments at all four class-levels. And while plenty of drama and excitement are a given, the best teams don’t always win championships which adds further intrigue.
The Fenwick, Oak Park and River Forest and Trinity teams all have postseason aspirations. Despite difficult draws, the Friars, Huskies and Blazers have enough talent to make a run in the postseason.
Here’s a closer look at each team’s outlook for the playoffs.
After hovering around the .500 mark for the past few seasons, the Friars won 20 games this winter. Fenwick (20-11) notched notable victories over Bogan, Marian Catholic, Peoria and Stevenson. The Friars also lost close games against state title contenders like Loyola, Montini, Fremd, Benet and New Trier.
Fenwick coach Dave Power is confident that the rigorous schedule will benefit the Friars in the 3A tournament.
“We feel we’re playing very good basketball at the right time of year,” Power said. “This is why we play an unbelievably challenging schedule. We put the team through a lot of battles to try to get ready for the war. We’ve seen it all and feel we’re able to adjust.”
Unlike last season when the Friars relied heavily on 1,000-points plus career scorers Kate Moore and McKenzie Blaze, there has been a more balanced team scoring approach.
“If Kate and McKenzie weren’t all-state last year, there shouldn’t be any all-state teams because they were phenomenal,” Power said. “We’re more balanced now which makes it harder for teams to stop us. What I’m really excited about is that we’ve had several girls step up.
“Lauren Hall is playing at a high level the last few games. I have yet to see a better sophomore playing in Illinois. It’s all about the team. We have several versatile weapons. The players and staff have worked hard to prepare for the second season”
Maggie Van Ermen, Sheila Hogan, Lily Riordan, Katie Schneider and Hall have been solid contributors this season, while freshmen Elise Heneghan and Audrey Hinrichs have infused the Friars with exciting, young talent. Although senior guard Gianna Ortiz did miss several games with a severe ankle sprain late in the season, the Friars’ floor general should be good to go for the state tourney.
“It’s so much fun playing on this team because we all work so well together,” Hall said. “We played many tough games during the regular season and grew a huge amount from each one. We’re excited for the upcoming games.”
Heneghan, Ortiz and Van Ermen were named to the Girls Catholic Athletic Conference Red all-conference team.
“The regular season was a journey of pure growth,” Ortiz said. “We definitely made our team known and proved that we aren’t a team to be taken lightly.”
Another positive for the Friars is they are hosting a 3A sectional. If Fenwick reaches the sectional final, their likely opponent would be defending 3A runner-up (and top-seeded) Nazareth Academy. The Roadrunners and Friars are seeded first and second, respectively.
“Our team is very excited going into the playoffs,” Van Ermen said. “We are in a great spot to be successful. We just need to utilize everybody on the court and stay together.”
Led by dynamic all-state guard Annie Stritzel, Nazareth edged the Friars in last year’s sectional title game at St. Joseph. Power cited North Lawndale, Payton Prep and Westinghouse as other teams to watch out for in the Fenwick Sectional.
“We have to focus on every team we play and give them our utmost attention,” Power said. “We don’t want to get caught looking ahead. We can’t be focusing on Nazareth only to be one-and-done. I’ve seen it happen a lot. I think the state tournament is going to be very interesting because there’s a lot of parity and good players.”
In 2019, the Huskies have lost 11 of 12 games, with their sole win coming against Hinsdale Central.
“We were in just about every game, but couldn’t seem to finish and get over the hump,” coach JP Coughlin said. “Whether it was missed free throws or layups, those are the difference between having six or seven more wins and our current record. (But) this group is still positive and enthusiastic.”
Despite their recent struggles, the Huskies (10-20) have a pair of guards who are very capable of leading the team to victory.
Senior Ahsha Spencer is the Huskies’ leading scorer (18 points per game) and rebounder (10 rebounds per game), while fellow senior Darse Sanchez (15 ppg) can go on a massive scoring spurt at any time. Spencer recently received a scholarship offer from the University of Illinois at Chicago. The injury-prone Sanchez simply must stay healthy during the playoffs.
“Ahsha has been terrific for us all year,” Coughlin said. “She’s starting to get Division I offers which is nice. Darse rushed back from ACL surgery. Usually that’s a 12-month recovery and she was back in less than 9. She’s had to work her way back into shape.
“On nights when they’ve both played well, we’ve played with just about anyone in the state,” Coughlin added. “We’re hoping for big things from the two of them during the playoffs.”
Senior guards Faith Smith and Kate Sisler, junior guard Tatym Coe, junior forward Karly Cantrell and freshman guard Lilah Gery have played key roles as well.
“Tatym Coe has really been coming on lately,” Coughlin said. “Karly Cantrell is our only post player and she’s averaging close to double-digits in rebounding.”
Advancing out of regional play will be a challenge. OPRF’s first game is Wednesday, Feb. 13 against Taft in the 4A Lane Tech Regional. Taft routed the Huskies 74-39 on Dec. during the regular season.
“The Taft game did not go well,” Coughlin said. “It was a scheduling fault on my end. It was the Saturday night before Christmas after finals week, and we had played into overtime the night before. They were exhausted and didn’t have it that night.
“We’re expecting a better outcome this time. Taft has some really good players; their sophomore guard is probably one of the better players in the state. (But) with a full week of preparation, I realistically believe we can win on Wednesday.”
If the ninth-seeded Huskies take care of Taft, the next opponent is likely Maine West – considered by many a strong favorite to win state.
Regardless of results, the OPRF players will assuredly give it their best effort.
“The kids know its win or go home,” Coughlin said. “We’re going to throw everything we have against Taft and see what happens. For some of them, these playoffs will be the last time they play basketball. So there’s definitely a strong sense of urgency.”
With new head coach Kim Coleman guiding a primarily young and inexperienced team, this season figured to be transitional one for the Blazers. To complicate matters, Trinity suffered a major blow before the start when promising junior guard Dayjah Chimelewski tore her ACL and missed the season.
Her loss redirected responsibility on the shoulders of junior guard Zee Stafford and sophomore forward Makiyah Williams. Williams produced several outstanding performances that cemented her status as one of the state’s top recruits in the Class of 2021. She’s the type of impact player that can power Trinity to some upset wins in the tourney.
Sophomores Savannah Childress and Maddie Miller and juniors Claire Hanley and Lauren Saleh also showed signs of progress.
With only two seniors on the roster, plus the highly anticipated return of Chimelewski next season, the Blazers’ future appears bright.
However, the team’s current focus is on the 4A Evanston Sectional. Trinity (12-16) opens regional play Tuesday, Feb. 12 against Niles West at Loyola Academy. The Blazers are the tenth seed in the 4A Evanston Sectional.