Looking ahead to next season, the Fenwick High School boys basketball team returns a lot of talented players, notably nationally-ranked guard DJ Steward, prolific playmaker Damari Nixon and promising underclassman Bryce Hopkins.
However, one key member of the team won’t be back. After five years as the Friars’ head coach, Rick Malnati informed the school he is resigning from the position. He informed the varsity players of his decision on April 18.
“These last 3-4 years have been special with Coach Malnati because now the school is getting recognition for all the hard work this group and the guys before us put in,” Damari Nixon said. “It shows that all of our hard is paying off because of all the success we’ve had these past years.
“Fenwick has always been known for being an excellent academic school, but now we are showing that we can compete with some of the best basketball teams in the state.”
Staunton Peck, an assistant coach under Malnati at Fenwick since 2013, takes over as the new head coach.
“Five years ago Staunton Peck and I got a chance to come to Fenwick to coach basketball,” Malnati said in a press release issued by Fenwick. “I originally told Athletic Director Scott Thies that I would commit to three years and then Staunton would take over. I was having so much fun, I stayed five!
“I’m very thankful to the Fenwick community, the faculty, and my players and parents for their support,” Malnati continued. “I have great confidence in Staunton. He has a great basketball mind and a heart for kids.”
Peck is a 2001 alumnus of New Trier High School in Winnetka and played for Malnati for three years there, starting on the Trevians’ 2000 supersectional championship team. He is a 2006 graduate of Hamilton College in Clinton, NY, where he was a two-year captain of the Continentals’ basketball team. From 2007-09 Peck was a graduate assistant at the University of Wisconsin – Lacrosse, earning a master’s degree in athletic administration. In addition to being the new head varsity basketball coach at Fenwick, Peck also is the school’s assistant athletic director.
“I am extremely excited to take on the role of head basketball coach at Fenwick,” Peck said in the same press release. “I am grateful for all the mentoring that Rick Malnati has given me as a person and basketball coach throughout the past five years and beyond. He is an incredible coach and an even better person. I hope to carry on the great culture he has established over the past five years.”
Malnati, 58, excelled as successor to John Quinn, another highly successful hoops coach at Fenwick.
To his credit, Malnati handled a then-delicate situation with tact and class.
“Coach Quinn has been outstanding in a tough situation,” Malnati said at the time of his hiring. “Before I came to Fenwick, we were competitive friends because our teams had battled each other. John has offered me an open door since I’ve come here. We’re trying to make the best of an awkward situation, but he’s a first-class guy who has treated me great.”
Over five seasons, Malnati guided the Friars to a 122-33 record, highlighted by a 38-game winning streak and three straight titles in the Chicago Catholic League. In 2016-2017, Malnati Fenwick to a 30-5 record and Class 3A runner-up finish. In the Class 3A finals, Morgan Park edged the Friars 69-67 in overtime. Led by stars like Jacob Keller, Jamal Nixon and Steward, the Friars recorded the best season in program history.
Malnati also aided multiple Fenwick student-athletes in playing college basketball. During his tenure, 15 Friars went on to play college basketball, including notable players like Scottie Lindsey (Northwestern), Tom Planek (Providence College), Dan Dwyer (Penn), Mike Smith (Columbia), Nixon (Minnesota State-Mankato) and Keller (Northern Iowa/football).
“At the time of the (Fenwick) offer, I was working as an assistant basketball coach at Loyola University so I was kind of out of the high school game,” Malnati said after he accepted the Fenwick head coaching job. “I think my personality is probably more suited to being a head coach. With its location, Fenwick presents such a unique opportunity. I’ve seen education change kids’ lives. Hopefully, we can attract kids who want to play in a good basketball program and receive a great education.”
Malnati, a Northfield resident, looks forward to spending time with his family.
“Off the court, I’m most proud of my family. I’ve been blessed with a great wife, Tina, and three wonderful kids, Tino, Gaby and Gianna,” Malnati said. “I always tell my kids if you’re going to overachieve in an aspect of life, make it your marriage. My mom, Jean, has been another blessing in my life.
“I’m also proud of the family business that my brother Marc and I took over after my dad died. Marc is the best leader I’ve ever been around. We’ve expanded the business, and I’m very proud of the culture around Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria. It’s a great team with a lot of loyalty.”
Malnati’s son, Tino, is a redshirt freshman guard at Northwestern. He will closely follow Tino’s career as a Wildcat. A return to coaching- as an assistant- remains a possibility.
“I’ve always loved basketball and being part of a team,” Malnati said. “In college, I was on good and bad teams [at Bradley University] not just in terms of results but also character. Even in business after college, I worked at Lou Malnati’s [Pizzeria] for 15 years.
“Whether it was business or even my own family, I’ve tried to model them after what makes a good team. Sports have essentially been the laboratory for me to experience life.”