2017 Basketball Preview: Familiar favorite but a whole new look to Catholic League

Loyola's Kevin Cunningham (3) stops a ball from going out of bounds against St. Patrick. Worsom Robinson/ For the Sun-Times.

While the Public League made big news last spring by splitting its basketball conference alignment into two super conferences, the Chicago Catholic League quietly created its own conference hierarchy.

The Catholic League athletic directors came up with a new formula based on a combination of school size and basketball success over the past three years. That led to the creation of two new divisions, including one nine-team division with the league’s top programs.

This winter the Catholic League’s new look will include two divisions:

Blue Division: Brother Rice, DePaul Prep, De La Salle, Fenwick, Loyola, Mt. Carmel, St. Ignatius, St. Joseph and St. Rita.

White Division: Leo, Marmion, McNamara, Montini, Providence, Providence St. Mel, St. Francis, St. Francis De Sales and St. Laurence.

“I think the league tried to make sure that all our schools could play a schedule that they could be competitive in,” says Loyola coach Tom Livatino. “In doing that I think both divisions will become ultra-competitive, more competitive than in the past.”

Catholic League coaches, athletic directors and fans all are hoping for consistency with divisions and scheduling going forward. The league has been in constant flux over the years. The most recent change also eliminates the short-lived Catholic League Tournament.

“This is my fifth year in the league and it seems like it changes every year,” says Fenwick coach Rick Malnati. “We’ll see how it goes in its first year, but I think most of the good rivalries have stayed within the same divisions.”

St. Rita coach Gary DeCesare, now in his ninth year in the Catholic League, is in favor of the new format moving forward after seeing “three or four different schedules changes” over recent years.

“I like it,” says DeCesare. “They’ve move more towards success. That’s just going to give us better games with even more rivalries. It’s good for the league.”

Livatino hopes the league’s new format and framework will hold up moving forward.

“The biggest thing for the league is to adopt something and to build on with some tradition,” says Livatino. “Hopefully this is the beginning.”

The one thing that hasn’t changed is the team everyone in the Catholic League will be chasing. Fenwick rolled through the league a year ago and will be favored again.

Although the Friars did lose the backbone of its team in departing seniors Jamal Nixon and Jacob Keller, Malnati has a wealth of experience and a rising star.

D.J. Steward, one of the top sophomore prospects in the country, returns better and a year older. The silky smooth 6-3 guard led the Friars in scoring a year ago with 14.5 points a game as a freshman.

In addition, seniors Billy Bruce, A.J. Nixon, Mike O’Laughlin and Sam Daniels and rising junior Damari Nixon are all back from last season’s 30-win team. Those five were regular contributors a year ago and combined to average 23 points a game in supporting roles.

Then there is Malnati, one of the most respected and successful high school coaches in the state.

The veteran coach took over prior to the 2013-2014 season and has promptly led the Friars to an average of nearly 26 wins a year in the past four seasons, including a combined 58-7 record the past two years. Last year Fenwick won a school record 30 games and finished second in the state in Class 3A.

Although Fenwick will be expected to repeat, the top division will be competitive and balanced. Here is a snapshot of the best teams in the Catholic League’s top division.

Brother Rice: The loss of all-league performers Mike Shepski and Josh Niego is huge, but coach Bobby Frasor will build around guard Brendan Coghlan, who is poised for a breakout season, 6-3 athlete Josh Boulanger and talented Crete-Monee transfer Marquis Kennedy.

DePaul Prep: Perry Cowan, one of the top juniors in the area, and 6-6 Pavle Pantovic return from a Class 2A regional title team that won 21 games. If young players like sophomores Lance Mosley and Darren Shower rise to the occasion, the Rams could push towards 20 wins once again.

Loyola: Kevin Cunningham (12 ppg, 71 three-pointers) is the lone returning starter but look for hard-nosed senior Pete Mangan and sophomores Jordan and Bennet Kwiecinski to be impactful.

St. Joseph: The senior-dominated Chargers welcome back a host of veterans in point guard Ahmad Muhammed, Joffari Brown, Jordan Boyd and Jalen Boyd. There is a whole bunch of varsity experience among those four, while versatile junior Maliq Anderson is coming off a solid summer.

St. Rita: The Mustangs are a potential top 25 team. A talented young nucleus, including 6-6 junior Jeremiah Oden and sophomores Joel Watts and Alec Millender, join senior Jordan Matthews to make the Mustangs a contender. Coach Gary DeCesare calls Matthews “the most underrated guard in the state.”

St. Ignatius: With size in improving 6-8 Dariusz Muta and solid point guard play with Carter Higginbottom, the Wolfpack will be better than most expect and an improved team in year two of coach Matt Monroe.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the City/Suburban Hoops Report @joehoopsreport

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