When the season began it was expected Marian Catholic, Benet, Notre Dame and Marist would battle for the top spot of the tough, highly-competitive East Suburban Catholic Conference. Add St. Patrick to the already deep mix of contenders.
Veteran coach Mike Bailey’s Shamrocks are 13-2 and off to a 2-0 start in the ESCC. St. Pat’s went on a run at the Jack Tosh Holiday Tournament at York before falling to Conant in the championship. Now it has a game this Friday night when it hosts Benet.
St. Pat’s was expected to be very competitive. There was the return of three key perimeter players –– Laurence Merritt (11 ppg), Xavier Pinson (10 ppg) and Jalen Nelson (9 ppg) –– and veteran depth with six seniors in Bailey’s nine-man rotation.
But there was a spike in overall talent with the arrival of Alton Thompson, a 6-4 wing who moved in from California during the offseason.
Thompson (10 ppg), who Bailey says has “blended in so well and seamlessly,” possesses off-the-charts explosiveness as an athletic 6-4 playmaking wing.
There is also some size this season with 6-6 senior Ayo Ajayi and 6-5 Jeremiah Jones, a junior who missed all of last season with a knee injury.
Bailey has done an outstanding job of utilizing St. Patrick’s strengths, including depth and athleticism, which has allowed his team to play a different style this season.
“We are able to attack people in different ways, turn people over and score off our defense,” says Bailey. “We haven’t been able to play this way in recent years.”
Seniors Jacob Keller and Jamal Nixon remain the backbone for Fenwick. But the arrival of freshman D.J. Steward as a bonafide offensive weapon makes coach Rick Malnati’s Friars a much more dangerous team going forward.
Steward had a name coming into Fenwick as one of the most promising young players in the Class of 2020. But highly regarded doesn’t always mean highly productive for a freshman playing at the varsity level.
The 6-4 Steward, however, led Fenwick in scoring at the Proviso West Tournament over the holidays and then added 13 points in a win over Proviso East this past weekend. In his last five games he’s averaging nearly 12 points a game.
Long, versatile and skilled, Steward is arguably the top freshman prospect in the Chicago area, and the more seasoning he seems to get the more dangerous he makes Fenwick.
The Wheaton South MLK Tournament this weekend has turned into something big in 2017.
The 16-team field will certainly provide a big test for the host school, which has arguably been the season’s biggest surprise with its 15-1 record.
There are four ranked area teams in No. 10 Homewood-Flossmoor, No. 14 Benet, No. 22 Wheaton South and No. 25 Notre Dame, along with talented and dangerous Oak Park, Downers Grove South, Hinsdale South and Bloomington.
With two games on Saturday and two more Monday, the weekend could prove to be a war of attrition. Maybe no team will have a more challenging weekend than Benet.
After traveling to face talented St. Patrick Friday night, the Redwings must turn around and play Hinsdale South (8-5) Saturday morning at 9:30 a.m. and, with a win, likely meet Homewood-Flossmor (11-2) for quite a trio of games in a 21-hour period.
Follow Joe Henricksen and the City/Suburban Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopreport