February 23, 2018
The Apple Watch had yet to be released in February 2015, which is the last time the Fenwick boys lost a Chicago Catholic League conference basketball game.
By Mark Vruno
The 2014-15 Fenwick Friars started the CCL win streak in February three years ago.
A lot can happen in three years. Then-freshmen are now seniors. In the winter of early 2015, U.S. President Obama still had one year remaining on his second term in office.
In early February of that year, “pop” culture entertainment featured an animated, box-office smash in “Sponge Out of Water,” the Sponge Bob movie. Musically, Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” was the #1 song in America. On the tech front, the Apple Watch had not yet been released. And in sports, baseball skipper Joe Maddon hadn’t yet managed the Chicago Cubs, which still had not won the World Series in 107 years.
2015 rewind: Who lived in a pineapple under the sea?
In ’15 high school basketball, the Fenwick Friars boys’ team lost to the St. Joseph Chargers in the semi-finals of the Chicago Catholic League (CCL) Tournament. That was when guard Mike Smith was a junior -- he’s now a sophomore at Columbia University. Jamal Nixon was a sophomore -- he’s now a freshman at Minnesota State. The Fenwick W’s started with the 3rd-place game against Hales Franciscan. And last Friday night, Feb. 16, 2018, when the Friars rambled to a 48-45 victory over Loyola Academy in Wilmette, the streak extended to 38 straight league victories. “That’s an impressive run,” proclaims Head Coach Rick Malnati.
Chicago-area basketball super-fan Jack Gleason couldn’t agree more. “That streak is a big deal because of the competitiveness in the Catholic League,” says Gleason, who has been closely following high-school hoops for more than 50 years and takes in close to 100 area games annually. Gleason covers prep sports for the Chicago Sun-Times and runs his own website about high-school basketball in the Chicago area.
The 2015-16 team huddles at the UIC Pavilion during the crosstown-rival match up with OPRF.
“Just look at the Super 25 rankings heading into the post-season,” he notes. “DePaul Prep is #15, Loyola [Academy] has been a top team … [St.] Rita and [Brother] Rice have been up there. Leo is #6,” although Fenwick hasn’t played the Lions in basketball this year.
Mix in non-conference games against Public League powers Simeon (#1), Orr (#2) and Morgan Park (#5), and Gleason contends that the 19-7 Friars “have played one of the strongest schedules in the Chicago area. And they’ve navigated it very well,” he adds, “especially coming off of last year [2nd place finish in Class 3A] and losing two really key players” to graduation: Jacob Keller and Jamal Nixon. “Last year they had a clean path to Peoria. Getting bumped up into 4A will make it harder for Fenwick this year.”
The 2016-17 won its Sectional (above) and proceeded to advance downstate to Peoria, finishing as Class 3A runner-up in the State Championship game.
Fenwick Coach Malnati chimes in, “We’re proud of the dominance we’ve had in the Catholic League over the past three seasons and are looking forward to making our 2018 playoff run.”
During the three-season streak, Fenwick also has featured back-to-back-to-back CCL Lawless Players of the Year, as sophomore DJ Steward has joined Smith and Nixon in that distinct honor. The 2017-18 Friars are ranked 16th heading into next Tuesday’s first-round game vs. Proviso West at the Fenton Regional in Bensenville.
Like the two Fenwick teams before it, this season's Friars are undefeated (8-0) in Chicago Catholic League play; 19-6 overall heading into next week's regional playoffs.
Gleason Admits Bias
Full disclosure: High-school hoops guru Jack Gleason ’73 is a Friar. “My Dad went to Fenwick, too, Class of 1948,” says the alumnus who, ironically, did not play basketball at East Ave. and Washington Blvd. But he was no stranger to the Lawless Gym.
Super-fan Jack Gleason is a 1973 Fenwick graduate.
“I was born in Chicago, was raised in Oak Park and played basketball through the 6th grade,” Gleason says. As a kid, his father “would take me to see games at Fenwick,” he explains, “... football games, too. They had some great teams in the ’60s! I got hooked.”
That might be an under-statement. In his four years at Fenwick as a student between 1969 and 1973, Gleason reports that he attended each and every home basketball game. “When I got my driver’s license, I started going to away games. I remember watching games in the Weber and Loyola gyms.” He drove to Hales Franciscan, too, which wasn’t in the safest of neighborhoods. “When [then] Coach Ed Galvin heard about that, he was concerned and said I could ride on the team bus if I wanted to. But I told him I’d be okay.” And off to Leo the super-fan drove -- by himself.
After Fenwick, Gleason attended college at Loyola University Chicago. A resident of Wheaton, he has been in the finance field for 34 years and is CEO of Leaders Bank in Oak Brook. “Every morning between 5:30 and 7 a.m. I work on my HSBBALL.com website,” which has evolved over the past 13 years. “My son, Pat, started it just for fun when he was in grade school. I just kind of tagged along in the beginning, Gleason explains.
For a while, Pat worked as a freelance photographer for the Sun-Times and posted a lot of his photos online. “Over the past seven to nine years, the site has become more informational,” reports Gleason, who pretty much runs the operation solo. Pat, now 26, “is still involved behind the scenes, from a technical standpoint.”
The Gleasons' popular website has taken on a life of its own.
HSBBALL.com has become a go-to resource for Chicago basketball aficionados and media members, including Hall of Fame local broadcaster Mark Krueger, who can be seen on TV covering high-school sports for Comcast.
The Gleasons come from a big family, which includes 34 nieces and nephews/cousins, “more than half of whom have or will attend Fenwick,” their Uncle Jack says. Friars, forgive him, but his own children (Patrick and older sister Colleen) went to Benet Academy. The St. Michael’s alumni “didn’t want to make the commute from Wheaton to Oak Park,” their Dad says. One niece, Colleen Stephany ’19, is currently a junior Friars’ student.
“I’m excited for Fenwick,” Gleason continues. “When they hired Rick Malnati, I told Mike O’Brien, my friend at the Sun-Times, that he is one of the best coaches I’ve run into over the years … the same with Coach [Gene] Nudo and the football program.
“Athletic Director Scott Thies [Class of ’99] and everyone at the school do such a great job of balancing Fenwick’s high academic and athletic expectations. The cool thing about Fenwick,” he concludes, “is that it achieves such exceptional standards while maintaining a diversity that a lot of schools don’t have.”