For the fifth time in eight years, the Riverside-Brookfield High School boys basketball team won its own Bill VandeMerkt Thanksgiving Classic.
While an auspicious start this season was expected from the Bulldogs, who return four starters from last year’s 28-4 squad, their 72-52 win over Oak Park and River Forest in the championship game was particularly impressive.
Playing without two starters, Henry Trelenberg and Skyler Nash, the Bulldogs didn’t skip a beat as the team’s depth was on full display against the highly regarded Huskies.
After OPRF raced out to 7-0 lead, RBHS coach Tom McCloskey called a timeout. When the Bulldogs returned to the court, they outscored OPRF 72-45 the rest of the way.
“We started off down 7-0 but didn’t get fazed,” McCloskey said. “I thought we put four good quarters together. Our passing, scoring and defense were great. I’m just proud of the way the guys played tonight. It was nice to win the championship especially with Mr. VandeMerkt here.”
Tournament MVP Daniko Jackson had a game-high 17 points, five assists and three steals for the Bulldogs. Jalen Clanton (13 points), Mark Smith (12 points, 7 rebounds) and Ryan Cicenas (12 points, 6 rebounds) also led the team offensively.
“We played well defensively and rebounded well,” Jackson said. “We held them to 52 points and picked them up in transition. I’m very excited [about the team’s depth] and that should help us realize our goal of getting to the state finals in Peoria.”
Reserves Amari Smith, Calvell Randall and Dean Zigulich impacted the game as well at both ends of the floor. Smith looks like the heir apparent at point guard for Jackson (a senior), while Randall provides an additional presence in the paint to back up Smith.
“I just want to hold it down on the defensive end,” Randall said. “I try to keep the energy going and keep my teammates happy. With Mark [Smith] and I, we’re pretty tough in the paint and we both play good defense.”
Zigulich, a star wide receiver on the Bulldogs’ football team which advanced to the Class 6A quarterfinals, does the little things that translate to team success.
“We just try to do whatever Coach McCloskey asks us to do,” Smith said about the bench players. “We go hard in practice and games. Winning our tournament will give us a big push for this season.
“It’s fun playing with guys like Daniko, a three-year starter and Jalen. I can learn a lot from them. Most guards can’t keep up with us. At home, we just have fun.”
In other games at the tournament, RBHS defeated Lake Park 63-47, St. Laurence 60-52 and Rich Central 87-73.
Jackson had 18 points and four assists, Clanton added 13 points and Smith recorded a double-double of 12 points and 10 rebounds against Lake Park.
Tied at 46-all after three quarters against St. Laurence, the Bulldogs held the Vikings to one field goal in the fourth quarter en route to victory. Smith finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds and Jackson contributed 13 points and seven steals.
The potent guard combo of Clanton (28 points, 8 rebounds) and Jackson (24 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists) powered RBHS past Rich Central. Smith (8 points, 6 assists) and Kaczmarczyk (7 points, 7 rebounds) also contributed against the Olympians.
RBHS (4-0) takes on host Wheaton Academy Friday, Dec. 4 at 7:30 p.m.
“It’s a conference game and we’ll have to be ready,” McCloskey said.
The Bulldogs are back in action the following day, Saturday Dec. 5 at 2:30 p.m. against Gonzaga College Prep from Washington, D.C., in the Chicago Elite Classic.