By Mark Vruno
Thank you for the opportunity, Peoria! As most of Friar Nation knows, this past season on the hardwood marked a historic run for the Fenwick Friars boys’ basketball team, which claimed its first sectional title since 1998* and advanced to play for a state championship in Class 3A. Yes, we ultimately lost the final game in heartbreaking fashion: 69-67 in overtime. But let’s not allow foul troubles and Morgan Park’s flurry of three-point shots in OT diminish what the Friars accomplished during a magical season that included 30 victories – the most wins ever in a season at Fenwick -- versus only five defeats.
For those alums who did not get a chance to see the Friars hoop it up in person or on TV, here are some highlights from Fenwick’s best hardwood finish in 87 years:
- Team Accomplishments: In addition to their IHSA 3A Regional, Sectional and Super-Sectional championships, the Friars went undefeated (a perfect 9-0) in the Chicago Catholic League (CCL) North Division for the second consecutive year and were back-to-back CCL Tournament champs. Fenwick has dominated league play, winning 27 straight CCL games; its last conference loss came in February 2015. The Friars also are 2016 Fenwick John Malone Thanksgiving Tournament Champions and placed fourth at the ultra-competitive Proviso West Holiday Tournament.
- 6’4” senior Jamal Nixon, a four-year player on varsity, surpassed Corey Maggette (see below) as the all-time winningest player in Fenwick history. Since 2014-15, Nixon’s teams went 102-25 for an incredible winning percentage of more than 75%. Jamal, who lives nearby in Chicago but originally is from Plainfield, IL, is the Lawless Player of the Year in the Chicago Catholic League (CCL) and was named second-team All-State by the Associated Press. Pioneer Press newspapers named both Nixon and Jacob Keller to its All-Area first team, which includes players from all of Chicago’s suburban high schools. Nixon will play basketball in college at Minnesota State University.
- Senior guard Jacob Keller (6’3”) is an all-conference selection as well, joining Nixon on the CCL’s first team and also the Pioneer Press All-Area first team. Hailing from the western ’burbs, he also was selected to the Proviso West Holiday Tournament’s All-Tournament Team. Keller is an All-State quarterback who will play football in the fall at Northern Iowa. Remarkably fluid in his movements, he is, arguably, the best all-around athlete ever to play sports at Fenwick. Some people have suggested that Keller is the best athlete in the state of Illinois this school year.
- Freshman phenom DJ Steward is a 6’2” guard from Oak Park (Brooks Elementary). Although he didn’t crack the starting line-up until Christmastime, the skinny kid with cat-like reflexes made up for lost time, leading the team in scoring and earning All-CCL honors. Just how good is Steward? His finals performance literally was record-breaking for field-goal percentage and points scored in a 3A championship game. The stat sheet on March 18 shows that DJ shot a perfect 10 for 10 from the field and went two for two from the three-point arc; he also made all four of the free-throws he attempted, finishing with 26 points, seven rebounds and six steals. The humble 15-year-old already is receiving scholarship offers from some major college programs.
Going “small:” An interesting fact about this year’s stellar squad is that not a single starting player was over 6’4” tall. “Jamal’s toughness allows him to guard taller players,” observes assistant coach Staunton Peck. “Our starting line-up essentially featured five guards who all could handle the ball. That makes defending them tough for bigger players,” who may not be as agile.
Head Coach Rick Malnati adds: “Our tremendous success this season is the culmination of our progression the last four years. Every one of those guys [since 2013-14] has played a part in what we did this year. Jamal, Jake and the rest of our kids felt like they were representing last year’s team,” which lost in heart-breaking fashion to St. Joseph in the 2016 sectional round. (Read about Friar alums playing for and managing Big Ten college hoops teams.)
The future shines bright for Friars’ hoops. Returning next year with Steward are the Nixon brothers, AJ and Damari (no relation to Jamal), Billy Bruce and All-State football wide receiver Mike O’Laughlin (6’5”). Congratulations, to coaches Malnati and Peck and their Fightin’ Friars for making Friar Nation beam with pride!
ONLINE: View our “Road to Peoria” photo essay.
*1998 was the year Corey Maggette’s team (yes, that’s his jersey #50 hanging from the rafters in the Fieldhouse) won the Super-Sectional. The 6’6” 225-lb. Maggette was an All-American at Fenwick, played collegiately at Duke and then had a 14-year professional career in the NBA.