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Friars and Huskies have high hopes for playoffs

February 13th, 2018 4:30 PM

Fenwick senior McKenzie Blaze has scored over 1,000 points during her high school career. She also provides leadership, rebounding and defense for the Friars. (File photo)

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Melvin Tate

Contributing Reporter

Let the second season begin.

That's the opportunity the Fenwick and Oak Park and River Forest girls basketball teams will embrace as the IHSA state playoffs rev up this week.

Since the NCAA has March Madness, consider the upcoming itinerary of girls hoops as a February Frenzy of sorts.

Fenwick

The Friars are seeded second in the St. Joseph Sectional of the Class 3A playoffs.  Fenwick opens play on Tuesday, Feb. 13 in the Crane Regional against Rauner. The winner will face either Clemente or Crane on Feb. 15 for the regional title. A matchup against top-seeded Nazareth in the sectional final seems likely; however, Fenwick coach Dave Power isn't taking anything for granted.

"We certainly have the talent to get back Downstate for the first time since 2010 when we had Tricia Liston (Fenwick finished third at state), but we're going to have to bring our 'A' game. Our 'B' game won't do it," Power said. "Anything is possible. You can't look ahead because there are so many good teams and many upsets early. We're going to approach every game as if it could be our last."

Senior stars Kate Moore and McKenzie Blaze will have to play at a high level for the Friars.

"When both Kate and McKenzie are on, look out, because that's when we'll beat teams," Power said. "When one's on, we're still in the game. When neither is on, that's when we struggle. You're talking about 2300-2400 points between those two, and that's something you don't see often.

"They're not ball hogs either, they're team-oriented," Power added. "They care about their teammates more than individual stats. At the end of the day, basketball doesn't define either one of them. They're great young women."

Lily Reardon, Gianni Ortiz, Maggie Van Ermen, Margaret Planek and Katie Schneider comprise a solid supporting cast of players.  

"We have yet to play our best basketball and I'm excited to see what we can do these next few weeks," Planek said. "I think it will be a good run."

Not only has Fenwick played several quality non-conference opponents, but being in the Girls Catholic Athletic Conference Red has been a grueling experience. 

"We've played the toughest schedule in the state," Power said. "We're in the toughest conference in the state of Illinois. Every one of those teams (Loyola, Montini, Mother McAuley, St. Ignatius, and Trinity) has had a wonderful season. We finished third behind Montini and Loyola. In all of those games, we entered the fourth quarter with chances to win. We were able to beat Ignatius and McAuley and that's a wonderful tribute to Kate and McKenzie." 

OPRF

At first glance, the Huskies' pedestrian record of 13-15 might suggest an early exit from the 4A playoffs. In reality, OPRF has played better than its won-loss record.

Plus, the recent return of senior leaders Amaya Coleman and Maeve Nelson from injury helps the Huskies' chances in the Maine East Sectional.  

"It was certainly an up-and-down regular season," OPRF coach JP Coughlin said. "We got off to a good start but then started to struggle. However, we had some nice wins during the season, including (West Suburban Silver Conference champion) Glenbard West near the end - they came in on a 19-game winning streak at the time. That was the highlight.

"Injuries were a factor for some of our struggles - (Darse) Sanchez is out for the season. Everyone else is healthy for the playoffs. We haven't been that way in a long time."

In addition to improved health, OPRF guard Ahsha Spencer provides cause for optimism. Spencer, who poured in 24 points in OPRF's 68-64 victory over Leyden on Feb. 7, has taken on a larger role in the absence of Sanchez.

"Since Darse went down, Ahsha has taken on quite a load offensively," Coughlin said. "Having to be the point guard, getting other people involved, and having to be the leading scorer is no easy task. She has the most points, rebounds, steals, and blocks on the team."

Another positive for OPRF is having Nelson back. The Northwestern softball recruit is an all-court player with great instincts for the game and plenty of athleticism.

OPRF opens the postseason against Evanston on Tuesday, Feb. 13 at the Lane Tech Regional. It's a rematch of a regular-season game played at Evanston on Jan. 23. The Wildkits prevailed 52-46, but Coughlin likes his team's chances. 

"We played Evanston tough earlier without Amaya, Cici (Garland), and Maeve," he said. "They're healthy and back now. We'll give it our best effort on Tuesday and see what happens."
 
The fact that the Huskies have been able to devote more time in practice to the Wildkits since the regular season ended is a plus according to Coughlin. 
 
"We're able to do a little more prep on an opponent than we normally would during the season. We've had four practices strictly prepping for Evanston in the last week," he said.
 
While there is no doubt that extra preparation can be helpful, a team must still be able to execute the plan on game night. And in the playoffs, if you start a game slowly, chances are that your season will end early. In the Jan.  23rd game, Evanston jumped out to a 10-0 lead. The Huskies simply cannot afford to let that happen again. 
 
"We like our matchup with Evanston," said Coughlin. "(But) we have to get off to a good start (on Tuesday). It's one-and-done and you can't leave anything back. You've got to throw everything at them, see what sticks, and leave everything you have on the court."
 
Besides getting off to a faster start, better execution - particularly down the stretch - will be a must if OPRF is to advance.
 
"We were down 10-0 to start the game. And in the fourth quarter, we actually led but couldn't close," Coughlin said. "(Evanston) didn't make a field goal in the fourth, but they hit 16 free throws. We have to keep them off the line. We need to move our feet (defensively) better and force them to play half-court sets. They want to run, and we're going to try to slow them down."
 
The OPRF/Evanston winner will likely face #3 Loyola for the regional title on Thursday, Feb. 15. On paper, it looks like the Huskies have a tough draw. But this is the state tournament and anything is possible, especially in the early rounds. And Coughlin is optimistic that OPRF can surprise.
 
"(Evanston and Loyola) are two of the better teams around," he said, "but we feel we match up with them well. All we can do is do our best Tuesday. If we win, figure out something for Thursday."