As the interim Oak Park and River Forest High School girls basketball head coach, Renee Brantley is well aware of the challenges she faces.
The Huskies won just two of 32 games last year and have not posted a winning record since the 2015-16 season, when they finished 17-14.
Moreover, the program is in need of stability. Brantley is OPRF’s third head coach this calendar year, having replaced George Shimko, who stepped down in September after being hired in June. Shimko, who ultimately became head coach at Joliet Catholic Academy, had been tapped to replace Carlton Rosemond, who resigned in March after two seasons.
Despite the daunting circumstances, Brantley, who was an assistant under Rosemond, is confident of a turnaround.
“The girls have bought in and expectations regarding the standards we want to set,” she said in an interview with Wednesday Journal. “There’s a lot of learning that we’re doing; we have upperclassmen taking leadership as they should. People are overlooking us, [but] we’ve got a lot to prove.”
Senior guard Taylor Smith, one of six returnees from last season, is very familiar with Brantley and likes her.
“I’ve known Coach Brantley since I was in eighth grade,” she said. “I’ve known her a lot longer than anyone else. She’s a great coach, and I love the coaching staff; they’re all very supportive.”
OPRF has five other returnees: senior guard Shardae Spruille; junior forwards Anna Breuer and Genevieve Simkowski; and sophomores Gabriella Chesney and Leia Hammerschmidt. All saw playing time last season except for Spruille, who missed the year with an ACL injury.
“Shardae’s come a long way,” Smith said. “We’ve been friends since freshman year and have always played together. I know she went through a lot with her recovery, but she looks good, in great shape. Shardae isn’t going to let her injury stop her from realizing her dream, which is college.”
The Huskies’ newcomers are sophomore Yvette Thrasher; juniors Siena Alfonsi, Claire Detmer, Jennifer Keane, Sonia Lavery, Maya Mossell, and Jada Noyes; and senior Daria Kelley.
OPRF’s non-conference scheduling highlights include the Brenda Whitsell Thanksgiving Tournament at Hinsdale South, Nov. 16-21; the Sha Hopson Memorial Classic at Hyde Park, Dec. 2; the Loyola Academy Christmas Tournament, Dec. 26-29; and the MLK Showcase at Trinity, Jan. 15. The Huskies also face both of their neighborhood rivals on the road to end the regular season: at Trinity, Feb. 6, and at Fenwick, Feb. 8.
OPRF won’t get any breaks, competing in the West Suburban Conference Silver Division, one of the state’s best leagues.
“It’s a tough conference,” Brantley said. “Every game is going to be a battle, and I’m excited to see how we match up.”
As far as this year’s goal, the Huskies say it’s building a comprehensive, winning culture that sets the foundation for success not just this year, but the following years as well.
“We’re all trying our best to make sure the environment is different from last year. I want the season to be more inclusive with the community and with less pressure,” Smith said. “We don’t want to feel like we’re walking on eggshells with little confidence; I want us all to have confidence.
“Obviously, we want to win games, but if we don’t, that’s completely understood because we’re rebuilding the program,” she added. “But in the next couple of years, we’ll definitely improve, and I also know we have potential this year.”
“We want to be better than the day before,” Brantley said, “but we also want to build a culture that gets girls excited about OPRF basketball. We can’t do anything about the past, but what we can do is control our present and set the ground for the future. The girls are holding each other accountable as well as themselves, and they’re understanding what it takes to be great.
“[Winning] is a process that doesn’t happen overnight,” she added. “It’s not going to be easy, but anything that comes easy isn’t worth having. I’m excited, and the girls are ready for the challenge.”