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O’Brien: Rapidly improving Jacob Keller helps Fenwick into Catholic League title game

Fenwick junior Jacob Keller, the Friars’ starting quarterback, flashed plenty of promise on the football field this fall. He’s always been an intriguing prospect as a basketball player, but he’s taken major steps forward in the past two months. On Wednesday in Westchester, Keller was the key cog in No. 2 Fenwick’s well-oiled basketball attack.

The Friars dismantled St. Laurence 71-51 in the semifinals of the Catholic League Tournament. Keller, a 6-2 guard, scored 15 and grabbed five rebounds. He also created for his teammates and blocked shots on defense.

“He’s starting to shoot the ball from the perimeter,” Fenwick coach Rick Malnati said. “You have to guard him now and you didn’t have to guard him earlier in the season.”

Keller, who is receiving interest from colleges to play football and basketball, said he isn’t sure which sport he’s going to play in college. Malnati thinks the answer is basketball.

“I think he’s a basketball player that plays football,” Malnati said. “He’s like a mouse, he can get through these little holes with the ball, it’s hard to stay in front of him. We put him in the middle of the zone and just tried to get him the ball so he could make a play.”

Fenwick (23-2) led 46-18 at the half and never looked back.

“[The St. Laurence student section] were chanting “overrated” before the game even started,” Keller said. “That’s what got us fueled up to get steals and finish off the steals.”

Quinn Fisher scored 12 points and Jamal Nixon added 10 points and six rebounds. Mike Smith and Jay Militello each scored 11.

“We exploited their ball-handling a little bit,” Malnati said. “They run the offense we run, so we know what bothers us. We did a good job in the first half of just getting them out of anything and they turned the ball over and we turned those turnovers into layups.”

Chris Carli and Brett Risley each scored 14 points for the Vikings (14-13).

The Friars played without Mike Ballard, who is expected to miss the next couple weeks with an ankle injury. Ballard is an excellent shooter and Fenwick’s second-best rebounder.

“Ballard will be back,” Malnati said. “He won’t play this weekend but he should be back for the state tournament, a lot of prayers.”

Fenwick was expected to make a deep run in the Class 3A state tournament. Ballard, a 6-5 senior, is the team’s tallest starter.

“He’s a big key to our success,” Keller said. “We can fill in for him a little bit, we’re just playing as hard as we can to fill in his role.”

Fenwick will face St. Joseph in the Catholic League title game on Saturday at DePaul. The Chargers knocked off Providence 48-32 in the other semifinal. Big man Nick Rakocevic led the way with 17 points.