Beating any team three times in one season, let alone a squad like Class 3A defending state champion St. Joseph and its legendary coach Gene Pingatore, is a difficult task. The Fenwick High School boys basketball team found that out the hard way in a 59-55 loss to the Chargers in the Class 3A Westinghouse Sectional final on Friday.
In their previous two meetings this season, the Friars cruised past St. Joseph 54-42 (Jan. 28) and 73-51 (Feb. 20).
In the third matchup, senior guard Mike Smith single-handedly kept the Friars in the game by scoring 18 of his team’s first 21 points. He finished with a game-high 34 points.
St. Joseph locked down defensively on the rest of the Friars, however, as Fenwick juniors Jacob Keller (8 points, 9 rebounds), Jamal Nixon (7 points) and the other starters were held in check.
The Chargers’ 6-foot-11 senior center Nick Rakocevic had a double-double of 11 points and 12 rebounds, while Jason Towers and Marquise Walker (13 points each) and Joffari Brown (10 points) also scored in double figures.
Engaged in a close game the entire way, Fenwick senior forward Mike Ballard drained consecutive 3-pointers to put the Friars up 48-46 with 5:23 left in the fourth quarter. After Smith made a free throw to tie the game at 51-all with 2:49 to go, St. Joseph outscored Fenwick 8-4 in the closing minutes to pull off the upset. The final eight points for the Chargers all came at the free throw line.
Fenwick turned in a stellar season with a 28-3 record, including a 9-0 mark as the Chicago Catholic League North Division champs. The team also won its John Malone Thanksgiving Tournament and placed second at the Proviso West Holiday Tournament. Under the leadership of coach Rick Malnati, the Friars established themselves as one of the best teams in the state with notable victories over rival Oak Park and River Forest, De La Salle, Whitney Young, Bogan, Notre Dame, Simeon, Riverside-Brookfield and St. Joseph (twice).
“Coach Malnati and our team had a lot of success this year,” senior forward Jay Militello said. “But what people might not see is that he’s turning us into young men. I am very fortunate to have him as my coach and friend.”
Smith, the CCL North Player of the Year, will leave Fenwick as one of the greatest players in the history of the program.
The level of respect the players have for Malnati is reciprocal.
“All of our seniors have meant so much to this team, and Smith especially has been a workhorse for us,” Malnati said. “There aren’t many guys that have more wins in their career at Fenwick than he does. Mike has had a great season and he really carried this team on his back in this game, especially in the first half. He’s a great kid and a great competitor, and we’ll miss him.”