After a grueling regular season, the Oak Park and River Forest and Fenwick boys basketball teams both hope their hard work pays off during “The Original March Madness,” better known as the Illinois High School Association boys basketball state tournament.
The Huskies and Friars have each enjoyed exciting wins as well as gut-wrenching losses. Those intense games should serve the crosstown rivals well as they navigate their way through one of the state’s most difficult sectionals.
The Class 4A Proviso West Sectional features many of the state’s top teams and players, plus a few under-the-radar squads quite capable of pulling off multiple upsets in the regional round, which began this week.
So far, so good for OPRF and Fenwick. Both teams survived and advanced in hard-fought regional semifinals on Wednesday, Feb. 27.
At York, OPRF defeated Leyden 66-57 behind a season-high 25 points from Dashon Enoch. The Huskies also received 14 points from Charlie Hoehne, 9 from Anthony Roberts, and 8 from Chase Robinson as OPRF’s “Core Four” loomed large in the win. The Huskies play regional host York on Friday, March 1 for the title as they attempt to defeat the Dukes for a third time this season.
Having passed their first tests in the postseason, here’s a closer analysis of the Huskies and Friars heading into regional final action.
OPRF (18-9 record; No. 6 seed Proviso West Sectional)
The Huskies overcame a relatively slow start this season to win their third consecutive West Suburban Conference Silver Division title. OPRF received consistently strong play from three experienced seniors in forwards Anthony Roberts, Charlie Hoehne and guard Chase Robinson – all of whom were named to the all-West Suburban Conference team. In addition, sophomore forwards Isaiah Barnes and Josh Smith emerged down the stretch as solid contributors. Senior guard Dashon Enoch, a four-year varsity player, is a big-time talent who has been hampered by injuries this season.
Season highlights include a pair of wins over conference rival York (No. 3 seed at Proviso West) and a victory over West Aurora at the Pontiac Holiday Tournament. However, the Huskies suffered several tough losses to Fenwick on a buzzer-beater at the Chicago Elite Classic, at St. Patrick, and to Evanston, Hillcrest, Proviso East and Riverside-Brookfield (all top 25 teams).
“The season was a lot of ups and downs for us,” Roberts said. “We lost games that we shouldn’t have lost. There are a lot of talented teams in our sectional, but I think we are capable of making a deep playoff run.”
OPRF head coach Matt Maloney is confident that the Huskies can have an extended stay in the state tournament.
“While we struggled early, I had always said we would find our identity and play our best basketball after Pontiac,” he said. “That has clearly been the case and we are close to being fully healthy heading into one of the toughest regionals in the state.”
One reason for the Huskies’ optimism is their defense, which gradually improved over the course of the regular season.
“I think our defensive intensity has improved as has our attention to detail,” Maloney said. “We always talk about guarding actions, not plays. Some of our seniors have been instrumental in getting this philosophy across to our younger guys.”
Maloney also cited the development of Barnes and Smith as instrumental to the team’s success.
“Our sophomores, Isaiah Barnes and Josh Smith, have played their best basketball as of late and are playing with much greater confidence. Clearly, they both have bright futures ahead of themselves.”
The Huskies will need to play at a high level if they hope to achieve their goal of winning a sectional title, something that the program hasn’t accomplished since 1976, when it took home the third-place trophy in Class AA. A difficult field of teams presents quite an obstacle course for OPRF. Seven teams in the sectional are currently ranked.
“I don’t think you will find a tougher regional or sectional around,” Maloney said. “We won our conference and beat York twice, yet we’re the sixth seed and we play a 16-win Leyden club who is extremely talented.
“If we happen to sneak by them, we get York on the road for a third time. As most know, beating anyone three times in a year is a tall task.”
Given that OPRF prevailed at York 54-52 on February 9, the Huskies won’t be intimidated by the expected hostile environment. Regardless of venue, the Huskies will need to bring their “A” game for any chance of sustained success in the postseason.
“We have to truly embrace our motto of ‘the little things mean everything,'” Maloney said. “Additionally, we always emphasize the three E’s of energy, effort and execution. We often have two of the three, but to advance in the most difficult sectional in the state, we need all three for 32 minutes.”
Roberts stressed the need for “Huskie Havoc,” the team’s signature defensive style that creates numerous turnovers and forces opponents into difficult shots. Aggressive play on offense is also beneficial.
“We need to make our defense our offense,” he said about the team’s transition game. “And we need to get to the basket.”
FENWICK: (17-13; No. 9 seed Proviso West Sectional)
Having seen popular head coach Rick Malnati retire and star players D.J. Steward and Damari Nixon transfer to Whitney Young and Curie, respectively, this season figured to be a transitional one for the Friars.
Even so, under the direction of new head coach Staunton Peck, Fenwick produced several memorable moments, including a buzzer-beating win over OPRF courtesy of a layup by sophomore standout forward Bryce Hopkins, as well as late-season victories over top 25 teams Brother Rice and St. Laurence. Fenwick also turned in highly-competitive efforts in losses to Riverside-Brookfield and Whitney Young.
Peck believes that a rigorous schedule has prepared Fenwick for a difficult Proviso West Sectional.
“We’ve played a tough schedule and it’s made us better,” he said. “We’re in one of the toughest sectionals in the state and I think we’ll be ready. We host a regional here so I like our chances. Being at home in the playoffs always helps.”
At 6-foot-5, Hopkins poses a matchup problem for most opponents. He has a strong post-up game in the paint and he can also knock down shots from the perimeter. He had numerous games in which he had at least 20 points and at least 10 rebounds. Barring injury, future double-doubles on the stat sheet are a given since Hopkins has emerged this season as one of the top players in not only the Catholic League but the entire Chicago area.
However, the Friars are far from an one-man team. Senior guard Solomon Oraegbu has provided steady leadership, The rangy guard is capable of going on a scoring spree at any time. Senior forward Lucas Kolovitz is the team’s leading rebounder whose known for his toughness and grit. Promising freshmen guards Kaden Cobb and Trey Pettigrew have shown improvement.
“Our strengths are how we pace the game and how efficient we are scoring inside and beyond the 3-point arc,” Pettigrew said. “We never feel like we are out of a game. Coach Peck and the staff have prepared us well for each game. I’m very proud and thankful of my teammates and coaches for helping me develop and grow.”
The sectional’s top seed and Chicago Public League champion Curie awaits Fenwick on Friday, March 1 at 7 p.m. The Condors, ranked No. 1 in the Chicago area and viewed as a strong favorite to win the 4A state championship, are led by Kansas State signee Dajuan Gordon and former Friar Nixon.
“Our regional is going to be very tough,” Hopkins said. “We are a young team, but I believe in our guys. I know what we can do and we are not backing down from any challenge.”