Last season at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, Oak Park and River Forest High School met Fenwick High School in a football game for the first time in 33 years.
OPRF quarterback Jack Gooch threw for 225 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another score. On defense, Khalil Nichols had three interceptions as the Huskies blew past the Friars 35-7.
Needless to say, the defeat has long been on the minds of the returning Fenwick players, particularly for four players — David Blake, Luke D’Alise, Marek Hill, and Elijah Romeus — who grew up playing with several OPRF players in the Little Huskies’ program in Oak Park.
“We lost last year in embarrassing fashion,” said Hill. “They talked a lot of smack to us afterwards. We’ve got to have pride in our school … this year, we’ve got to defend our home field.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, Fenwick coach Matt Battaglia named Blake, D’Alise, Hill, and Romeus captains for this year’s rematch, which takes place Aug. 26 at Triton College with the kickoff set for 1:30 p.m.
“Every game is big, but there are those that mean more,” said Battaglia. “They know this OPRF game means a lot.”
Here’s a look at each team entering this latest sports installment of the Crosstown Showdown:
Last year, OPRF burst out of the gates, winning the first two games in convincing fashion.
But the Huskies couldn’t sustain momentum and finished 4-5, the third consecutive non-COVID season they fell a victory short of the IHSA state playoffs.
OPRF is eager to return to the postseason for the first time since 2018, but returning just five players with significant varsity experience makes that a challenge.
Still, head coach John Hoerster likes how the Huskies are coming together.
“This team is as good as any I’ve had character-wise,” he said. “We don’t have discipline or behavioral problems. These guys are amazing and so much fun to work with; they’ve grown so much over the last few weeks.”
OPRF needs to find a replacement at quarterback for Gooch, a three-year varsity starter now at Augustana College. Sophomore Johnny Nelson and junior Owen Watson are battling for the job.
“I think it’s an advantage because there are certain plays we can do with them,” said Kaden Garland, an offensive lineman who is a three-year varsity starter.
Moreover, new players need to step up at wide receiver and running back. Juniors Mikee Vielehr and Matt Winkelhake seem poised to make an impact outside, as does sophomore Jeremiah Jenkins, who could also potentially line up at running back and share carries with senior Sam Gray.
Defensively, there is a little more experience. Senior Jeremiah Williams is stout on the line, and Gray and classmate Bobby Haagenson are good, hard-hitting linebackers.
Nichols, another senior, is the secondary’s stalwart and is looking forward to being a mentor this season.
“We’ve got to have the right mindset and [the seniors] have to be good leaders, picking up the young guys and pushing them,” he said.
Last season, Fenwick qualified for the IHSA Class 5A playoffs, looking to successfully defend its 2021 state championship. But the Friars’ hopes ended with a 14-6 defeat to Morgan Park.
Afterwards, Hill took over at quarterback and guided Fenwick to a pair of victories in the Chicago Prep Bowl playoffs and a spot in the title game against Chicago Public League champion Simeon. He threw for two touchdowns and ran for another score, but it wasn’t enough as the Friars fell to the Wolverines 33-30 in a back-and-forth contest.
This year, Hill enters as the clear starting quarterback, and Battaglia likes how he’s practicing.
“Marek’s doing a great job. He worked his butt off during the offseason,” he said. “He’s improved in all areas.”
Hill can rely on his classmate D’Alise to give him a helping hand on both sides of the ball. D’Alise rushed for 161 yards and a touchdown in the Simeon game and recorded 12 tackles and two interceptions defensively as he was voted Fenwick’s Prep Bowl Most Valuable Player.
“I love scoring touchdowns, but I also love making plays on defense,” D’Alise said.
When Hill throws the ball, he has a bevy of targets as seniors Romeus, Mike Caccitolo, Rowan White and Jalen Williams along with junior Andrew Bjorson all return.
The Friars perennially have a physical, hard-hitting defense, and this season seems to be no exception. It begins up front with one of the state’s best players in the Class of 2025, Nate Marshall. He’s been offered scholarships by several major universities, including Alabama, Auburn, Illinois, Notre Dame and Wisconsin among others.
Fenwick also has linebackers in D’Alise along with senior Dillon Murphy, and the secondary looks strong with seniors Avion Brown and Donnell French and junior Jack Paris manning things.
Last year, I picked OPRF to defeat Fenwick because of the experience factor. Gooch was entering his third year as the Huskies’ starting quarterback, whereas the Friars had to break in a replacement for Kaden Cobb, a key leader of the 2021 state title team.
I was proven right, but I also thought the game would be closer than it was. But six Fenwick turnovers proved very costly as OPRF took full advantage of the field position it was gifted.
This time is the inverse from a year ago as the Friars have a huge experience edge. While I have no doubt that the Huskies have some intriguing young talent, it hasn’t been tested yet on the varsity level, and a big-time opener against their crosstown rivals figures to be challenging.
Conversely, I feel Fenwick is eager and hungry to atone for last year’s outcome. Battaglia told me the coaches remind the players every day of it, and I know it’s especially personal for the Oak Park members of the team.
When I make a football prediction, I look at two positions: the quarterback and best overall player on the field. This year, the Friars have both edges. Hill has the potential to have a really nice senior season, and with all the numerous major Division I offers, Marshall is by far the best overall player on Saturday.
Tate’s Take: While I think OPRF will be ready to play thanks to Hoerster’s coaching, Fenwick’s the better team. The game will be close for a while given the rivalry, but in the end, the Friars will pull away and get their revenge:
Fenwick 28, OPRF 14