January 14, 2019
Step up, boys and girls! For 15- and even 14-year-olds playing on high school varsity hoops’ teams, the opportunities are theirs to seize.
By Mark Vruno
From left: freshman Audrey Hinrichs, senior Gianni Ortiz, senior Maggie Van Ermen and freshman Elise Heneghan.
Playing younger teenagers and inserting them into starting line-ups poses a challenging team dynamic for high-school (and even college!) coaches in any sport. The mental and emotional maturity differential between most 17-year-olds and teammates two or three years younger can be immense.
When youngsters are extremely physically gifted, roles usually sort themselves out in practice and scrimmages. Teammates and coaches know who has special skills and can play at a high level. Seeing is believing, after all -- and growing pains are expected. “I’d rather have younger players play if we can win with them,” says Gianni Ortiz, a senior point guard on the Friars’ girls’ varsity team, which is 18-7 (1-2 in the GCAC Red) heading into an away contest at Loyola Academy tonight. (The Ramblers defeated the Friars 56-49 back in November.)
During this 2018-19 basketball season, both girls and boys’ basketball teams have seen a youth movement afoot at Fenwick, but that doesn’t mean senior leadership is absent. The most obvious younger player making a big impact for the boys (10-8 overall, 4-4 in the Chicago Catholic League) is 6’5” sophomore Bryce Hopkins (Oak Park), who already has scholarship offers from major college programs including the University of Illinois, Loyola (Chicago) and Xavier. Hopkins, a Co-Athlete of the Month, dominated sports headlines by scoring at least 30 points per game (ppg) in multiple contests last month – not to mention the overtime buzzer-beater that beat OPRF on Nov. 30.
With the departures of now-junior DJ Steward and senior Damari Nixon, Hopkins was charged to step up his game – and he has answered the call thus far. “There is no sense of entitlement among the upperclassmen on our team,” reports senior Keon Williams, a 6’0” guard from Bolingbrook. “Heck, no one started last year. I’m still friends with DJ and Damari – they’re my boys. But they’re gone.”
Fellow senior Charlie Westerman, a 5’10” guard out of River Forest, adds bluntly: “It’s next man up!” Multi-sport athlete Lucas Kolovitz (Chicago), a 6’1” forward who will play baseball at Purdue-Fort Wayne next spring, concurs, as does 2019 classmate Solomon Oraegbu (Oak Park). These two senior starters also bring a more mature voice of reason to the Friars, along with guards Ryan Jackson ’19 and Sean Walsh ’20.
The magic of Ortiz
Girls’ longtime Head Coach Dave Power is rotating a pair of tall freshman into his lineup: Class of ’22 athletes Elise Heneghan (Lombard) and Audrey Hinrichs (Villa Park) are 5’11” and 6’1”, respectively, and both young women are affecting outcomes in positive ways. Sophomore Lauren Hall (5’10”, River Forest) is another youthful contributor.
But what about the upperclassmen, some of whom have had their roles diminished by the talented, younger players? Casting aside pettiness and jealousy often is easier said (than done), and solid senior leadership is the key to getting it done. “We needed some ‘bigs’ because, without them, we are pretty short,” Ortiz says of Heneghan and Hinrichs, who came up through their coach’s Chicago Power AAU club.
Ortiz has a reputation for being a selfless teammate. She has been called the “Magic” of Fenwick girls’ basketball. Coach Power says the pass-happy, feisty, 5’5” point guard from Elmwood Park has been making a lot of “special deliveries” this season. “I wish we had a girl like that on our team!” exclaimed one mother of a northwest suburban player, who shall remain anonymous.
Keeping the situation in perspective, Ortiz has empathy for her younger teammates. She knows how lonely it can be for a frosh to play up on varsity. Three years ago in 2015-16, she often felt isolated and “looked down upon” by her older teammates. “Honestly, I wouldn’t want anyone else to feel the way I did my freshman season,” Ortiz says. “I don’t like labeling my teammates as ‘freshmen’ or ‘sophomores.’ We are all equal. It’s important to make them feel like they’re part of the team because they are!”
Nodding her head in agreement is fellow senior Maggie Van Ermen (Oak Park), the other Fenwick December Co-Athlete of the Month. Known as a lock-down defender, the versatile Van Ermen had a monster month, making three of every four field-goal shots she attempted and averaging nearly 10 ppg. Juniors Sheila Hogan (Western Springs), an All-Conference selection last season, and Lily Reardon (River Forest), an outside shooter, also share Van Ermen and Ortiz’s winning philosophy. Instead of resenting the presence of the younger girls, they all try to help them improve for the benefit of the team.
“For the freshman girls, it’s not so much the faster speed of the [varsity] game that’s challenging but the mental and ‘basketball I.Q.’ aspects,” Ortiz continues. “I try to stay positive with all of my teammates, encouraging them to snap out of a funk and forget about a bad play they made. It’s a long game and we have four full quarters to play!”
In addition to accurate passes, Ortiz throws a few tactical pointers their way, too. “I may tell them, ‘Hey, if I’m driving this way, stay on the block and be ready for a pass here,” she says, demonstrating.
Youth is served
Back on the boys’ side, in addition to Hopkins, 6’1” guard Trey Pettigrew (Lisle) is only a freshman and is one of the Friars’ starting five. Pettigrew presently leads the team in assists, averaging 3.5 dishes per game along with 6 ppg. Fellow fleet-of-foot frosh Kaden Cobb (a 6’2” guard from Naperville who also is a shifty, strong-armed quarterback in football) comes off the bench and is seeing significant minutes.
From left: freshman Trey Pettigrew, senior Keon Williams, sophomore Bryce Hopkins, senior Chalie Westerman and freshman Kaden Cobb.
Williams envisions his future outside the gym and is taking the maturation of the youngsters in stride. “The team atmosphere in the locker room and on the court is not tense at all,” he claims. “We all understand the development process.” In fact, he and Westerman say they’ve embraced their roles as elder statesmen.
“We challenge them [the younger guys] to think more and try to get them to focus on and pay attention to the little details,” notes Westerman, a perimeter sharp-shooter known by his teammates as “Chuck.” “It’s a much quicker game than eighth grade, so they have to grow up fast. Our practices are super-competitive.”
Williams adds, “Listen, Trey and Kaden are like my ‘lil bros.’ We all come from the same areas in the western ’burbs. I’ve known those guys since they were in first or second grade.” He agrees with Ortiz, his senior female counterpart, about the importance of making them feeling included and “not like outsiders.”
Williams understands that taking the young “fellas” under his wing is part of his responsibility as an older player. “Part of our job is to keep them humble,” he says. “It’s ‘dog eat dog’ out there [on the court]. There’s a difference between being confident and being cocky, and we let ’em know when they cross that line.”
Camaraderie doesn’t happen overnight, Westerman points out. The team began bonding in summer-league workouts at the EFT Sports Performance complex in McCook seven months ago. Team chemistry is a process, complete with a few boil-overs. “Chuck and Trey go hard every day in practice, just like Bryce and Mikey [O’Laughlin ’18*] went at it last year,” Williams laughs. “Because of that, Bryce is more like a senior than a sophomore. We all make each other better, and now we are gelling [as a team].”
First-year boys’ Head Coach Staunton Peck welcomes the competitiveness and is pleased with the way his leaders are leading. Both Westerman and Williams agree that helping young players, especially freshmen, assimilate to the academic rigors of Fenwick is a key part of their mentoring roles. “The transition can be difficult,” acknowledges Williams. “We stress how seriously academics are taken at Fenwick, and we try to help them get -- and stay -- more organized.
“I know we are student-athletes, but I see myself as more of a life mentor,” Williams concludes. “They’re young, yes, but they need to realize that there’s life after sports. I’d like to major in history and minor in music or film next year in college.” He envisions a school somewhere on the West Coast and would like to continue playing basketball. Ortiz, too, would like to continue playing basketball beyond high school.
As for Westerman, the next few months are the end of the line for him and organized hoops. “I’ll probably go to Indiana University or Michigan next fall and major in business,” he thinks. But he’s not hanging up his gym shoes quite yet. A playoff run is looming, and who knows how far the combination of experience and talented youth can take the Friars?
*Mike O’Laughlin is a 6’7” 258-lb. freshman tight end on the West Virginia Mountaineers football team.
Noteworthy: The Friars’ junior-varsity girls’ team has an impressive 13-2 (3-0) record; the soph-frosh boys are a combined 14-3 (8-0) so far this season!