The Fenwick High School boys basketball team is hungry.
For most teams, reaching the state championship game would suffice as quite an accomplishment. Head coach Rick Malnati isn't diminishing what the Friars achieved last season though; he just wants another crack at the Class 3A state title.
Although Fenwick lost two former All-Chicago Catholic League members and current Division I college athletes in Jacob Keller and Jamal Nixon to graduation, the team remains poised to make a deep run in the 2018 state playoffs.
The Friars have three starters returning in junior guard/forward AJ Nixon, senior guard Billy Bruce, and the electrifying, four-star prospect sophomore guard DJ Steward. Nixon and Bruce bring leadership and solid all-around play to the court, while Steward is building on an impressive freshman year campaign, summer AAU performances, and high Division-I offers.
Malnati had a glowing review of Steward's progress from last year to this year.
"As a freshman, DJ led us in scoring in the second half of the season last year," Malnati said. "He's very humble. If you ask him what is most important to him, he will say that he wants to make his teammates better. He's worked hard this offseason, his range has expanded and his ball handling and defense are much better."
Returning seniors Sam Kure and Sam Daniels will bring a steadying presence off the bench and some maturity and leadership for the Friars' young core of up and comers.
One of the promising new players is 6-foot-3 freshman forward Bryce Hopkins. He has an impressive skill set for a freshman. The Friars could be looking at striking gold again this season with another rising freshman star on varsity.
Malnati will have to work around another extended football campaign this season as he will be missing some key players for the beginning of the season. Senior forward Mike O'Laughlin, who will be heading to West Virginia on a football scholarship, brings them a physically imposing presence in the paint at 6-foot-6. Lucas Kolovitz is an exciting newcomer with size, who also stars on the football team as a wide receiver/tight end. He led the sophomore hoops team last in scoring last year.
"We'll be missing some key players in the beginning for sure," Malnati said. "Without our football guys we may look a little smaller when we enter the gym, but we can more than make up for it. We'll be able to hit our stride come conference play when we have everyone back and ready to go."
Conference play won't be a walk in the park for the Friars. This season the CCL realigned its basketball conference to put the top nine schools in a single division. Fenwick, naturally being moved into this division, will be facing a top school in the area every single game.
In addition to a rugged conference schedule, Fenwick will be participating in the prestigious Proviso West Christmas Tournament, and facing crosstown rival OPRF in the Chicago Elite Classic at University of Illinois at Chicago.
Malnati is also very excited about a doubleheader showcase at Fenwick on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The Friars will take on Simeon followed by Morgan Park versus Bolingbrook.
Other notable opponents Fenwick will be taking on this year are traditional powerhouses Morgan Park, Whitney Young at Navy Pier, and Peoria.
"It's not just about player with this team," Malnati said. "We have five guys who can put up great numbers."