Fenwick sophomore DJ Steward is an elite defender with great quickness, instincts and a rangy build. He led the Friars to a split over the weekend, beating St. Ignatius 56-39 but losing to RBHS 67-65. (Photo by Ian McLeod)

This year’s Fenwick High School boys basketball team has had more losses (7) than last year’s Class 3A runner-up team (5). Of course, the extra losses don’t necessarily mean the Friars are having a down season compared to 2017.

The seven losses this season have occurred against highly regarded teams in Benet, Oak Park and River Forest, Riverside-Brookfield, defending 2A champion Orr, defending 3A champion Morgan Park, defending 4A champion Whitney Young, and the state’s current top-ranked team in Simeon. With the possible exception of Simeon (this year’s 4A favorite), all the losses were close, competitive games. Even Simeon didn’t pull away from the Friars until the fourth quarter.

Playing teams with such varying styles of play is also sure to help Fenwick when the state tournament starts later this month.

The Friars’ Friday night opponent, St. Ignatius, is known to play at a deliberate pace, testing teams’ patience. After a slow start caused by the Wolfpack’s play, Fenwick eventually kicked it into high gear en route a methodical 56-39 Chicago Catholic League Blue Conference victory.

The win clinched a share of the CCL Blue title at 7-0.

Clinching a share of the conference championship is great,”  said sophomore forward D.J. Steward, who led Fenwick with a game-high 15 points. “We know we still need to beat Loyola for an outright title, but this feels good. We played great defensively tonight and offensively made good decisions and shared the ball. It was a good all-around performance.”

The game started off physical in the first quarter as both teams played tight defense. The first points did not occur until the 5:25 mark on a basket by St. Ignatius’ Carter Higginbottom which proved to be the Wolfpack’s only lead.

AJ Nixon’s basket 25 seconds later sparked an 11-2 Fenwick run for the remainder of the opening quarter.

“It was a great win for us,” said Fenwick junior guard Damari Nixon, who had 10 points and 5 rebounds. “This year has been more challenging with the league realignment that put us in a division of tough opponents. It was a little unfair with the way the league stacked up the games against us. But we’ve stayed strong all season. Tonight, we played together and were on top of things defensively.”

The Friars could have built a bigger lead as they started to get open looks offensively, but they struggled with their shooting for much of the first half. Junior Solomon Oraegbu gave Fenwick a boost with six points off the bench in the second quarter. Defensively, the Friars’ continued their stingy ways, allowing Ignatius only five made baskets in the first half.

Fenwick led 23-12 at halftime.

Defensively, we showed we were prepared for Ignatius’ pace,” senior forward Michael O’Laughlin said. “The scout team did a good job getting us ready this week. Whenever we’re slumping on offense, we can always rely on the defense to give us a boost. Coach Malnati stresses that if we don’t play good defense, it’s going to be tough – if not impossible – to win.”

Steward, who had several good looks that missed in the first half, scored seven of his points in the third quarter as Fenwick started to dictate a faster tempo and opened up a 38-25 lead after three quarters. Early in the fourth quarter, the Friars went on a 14-3 spurt to take their largest lead at 52-30 with 2:30 left in the game.

“We had good intensity on defense,” Steward said. “We stopped them from executing their offensive sets.”

Other key contributors for the Friars included O’Laughlin (8 points, 5 rebounds), reserve Sam Daniels (9 points), and AJ Nixon (4 points, 6 rebounds).

Daniel Florey led the Wolfpack (12-9, 1-4) with 14 points and Christian Davis added 10.

Damari Nixon believes playing deliberate teams like St. Ignatius and Benet helps Fenwick.

We know how these teams play and we’re used to it,” he said of the slower pace. “When the playoffs start, it will be like second nature to us.”

As the state tournament looms, Fenwick knows that there are still some kinks that need to be straightened out. The good news is that the Friars are prepared to put in the work.

I don’t think that any team is perfect so we need to focus in and work on everything,” O’Laughlin said. “We don’t want to have a slump before the end of the season so we have to keep working in practice. Our defense is playing well, now we have to get the offense going.”

On Saturday, Fenwick lost to host Riverside-Brookfield 67-65. The Bulldogs’ junior guard Zach Vaia made a game-winning fadeaway jump shot in the closing seconds. After a slow start under first-year head coach Mike Reingruber, RBHS has responded well with 14 wins over the last 18 games.