The 11 players on the Wolfpack varsity boys basketball team knew they would have their hands full with the Pittsburgh Olympians
Just a few minutes into the championship game of the North American Youth Sports national tournament at Bolingbrook High School, the Wolfpack’s worst concerns were realized. The stronger, bigger Olympians scored on three alley-oop dunks en route to a 16-point halftime lead.
However, the Oak Park-based and unfazed Wolfpack methodically worked their way back into the game with teamwork and composure. Trailing 47-45 with four seconds left in the game, the Wolfpack shot an open three-pointer for the win.
Unlike seemingly every basketball movie ever made though, the ball rimmed out and the Olympians held on to claim the championship.
Tough title game loss aside, Wolfpack President and program manager Matt Kelly couldn’t have been prouder of his players.
“We were undersized and playing up a level (17U) against some very good ballers,” Kelly said. “When we were down 16 points in the championship game, I thought our guys just grinded it out. It was a great effort and probably the best a Wolfpack team has played at a major tournament.”
In round-robin action at the tournament, the Wolfpack went 6-0 with close victories against the Calumet Venom, Milwaukee Phenom AAU, Chicago Hoop Squad, IDM Panthers AAU and X Factor Elite. The lone blowout was a welcome 71-42 laugher against Whitewater Elite.
In the quarterfinals, OPRF senior Mike Saleh scored 23 points to power the Wolfpack past Madison Deer (Wisconsin) 61-38.
Fenwick junior Billy Bruce had 16 points in a 54-33 win over the Ohio Kings AAU in the semifinals. Bruce, an excellent all-around athlete, is also a varsity golfer and tennis player at Fenwick.
“Billy was the leader on Fenwick’s undefeated sophomore team this past season. He’s versatile and competitive. He is also one of the nicest kids when the game is over, but he’s totally zoned in during games.”
Highly touted swingman DJ Steward (incoming freshman at Fenwick) scored a game-high 17 points against the Olympians in the finals.
“DJ is as legit as they come,” Kelly said. “He can dunk the ball and is one of the best shooters I’ve ever seen. He’s versatile, long and athletic.
“The best thing about DJ is that he’s a great kid who’s genuinely liked by his teammates. He’s very coachable, too.”
While this particular Wolfpack team has individual talent, their success has been fostered by a learning curve over multiple seasons.
Three years ago at the same tournament, the team went 0-11 as seventh-graders.
This summer, they finished 17-2 overall in four tournaments.
“I like to compare this team to the [San Antonio] Spurs because they don’t care who scores,” Kelly said. “They play unselfishly and find the open guy. I’ve been coaching a lot of them for 11 or 12 seasons and it has been a real privilege. There’s never any re-teaching with this group, just fine tuning.
“Considering their development collectively, I would say this team is like the posterchild for what Wolfpack basketball is all about.”
The Wolfpack varsity roster includes seven players from OPRF High School (6-foot-1 sophomore forward Craig Shelton, 6-3 senior forward Mike Saleh, 5-10 senior guard Jack Simpson, 6-4 junior forward Phil Saleh, 6-2 junior forward Davis Birmingham, 6-2 sophomore guard Dan Francis, 5-10 junior guard Ben Pierce) and four players from Fenwick (6-2 junior guard Billy Bruce, 6-1 sophomore forward Lucas Kolovitz, 5-9 junior guard Charlie Westerman and 6-2 combo guard DJ Steward).
Assistant coach Marek Sorensen helps Kelly on the bench.
While the players likely will reconvene next season to continue their growth as a team, many of them will play with and against each other when OPRF and Fenwick meet during the high school regular season.
“It’s kind of cool during pre-game warmups that they are buddy-buddy and have fun,” Kelly said. “They all get along and play well together, but they are also very competitive. When that switch gets flipped on, they want to beat each other, that’s for sure.”
Celebrating its fourth anniversary this week, the Wolfpack School of Basketball currently has 16 teams (12 boys, 4 girls) and is involved with several camps, leagues and tournaments throughout the year to cultivate the development of local youth basketball players.
“Everything is going very well,” Kelly said. We had two teams in 2012 and now we have 16. We hope to get as many kids as possible in our programs.
“We also have a great group of coaches who are local guys. While we have a few players from Chicago and other suburbs, the players in our program primarily come from the communities of Oak Park and River Forest.”
For more information, visit www.wolfpackschoolofbasketball.com.