When it comes to high school basketball we’ve been talking with these negative connotations for the better part of the past 20 months: unfortunate, ill-fated, unlucky.
But it’s time to turn that frown upside down, especially for a few select basketball programs across the Chicago area who have been building towards this 2021-22 season and –– fingers crossed –– it will not be a season that’s dismantled or wiped away.
Unlike last season where so many teams were unlucky and felt the wrath of a pandemic, these are the teams that are lucky to have a mostly regular type of season ahead of them. These are the teams who have zeroed in on and had their eye on this particular season for various reasons.
They aren’t accustomed to winning championships, advancing in March or reaching the pinnacle of the State Finals. But the opportunity is there for all of them to flirt with history within their own respective programs.
Everything has come together and then some for a program with just one sectional championship in school history.
The John Shurna-led Hilltoppers won a sectional in 2007 before falling to Lockport in the super-sectional. But the success since then has been very sporadic, particularly when it comes to the postseason.
The season must still be played out, but this senior group, headed by Gonzaga-bound Braden Huff and Princeton recruit Caden Pierce, anchors what is the best team in school history. And everything they could possibly want to achieve is attainable and in front of them. That includes a potential state championship run.
There is enormous, difference-making size with the 6-10 Huff, 6-5 Pierce, 6-5 Bobby Durkin, 6-7 Ryan Renfro and tough 6-3 Paxton Warden. There might not be a more versatile, jack-of-all-trades player in the state than Pierce who can defend any position at a high level, initiate an offense and score.
But it’s the ultra-skilled Huff who is the bonafide star and matchup nightmare. He can score around the basket and stick a three-pointer. And with his elite passing, good luck doubling or focusing your defense on Huff.
The parts go together so well, starting with two unselfish stars headed to play Division I basketball in Huff and Pierce. There is shooting with Durkin and a tough, blue collar duo in Renfro and Warden.
First of all, this is a Class 1A school with a Duke recruit. That tends to carry a small school to big places.
Yorkville Christian hasn’t even been around for a decade, opening its doors in 2014, so there isn’t any long-suffering basketball fans or droughts of success. But making the most of having Jaden Schutt, the state’s top-ranked senior prospect, is imperative.
But coach Aaron Sovern’s team is more than Schutt, an elite shooter and scorer (26 ppg last season).
A trio of returning guards join Schutt on the perimeter. Seniors Tyler Burrows (17 ppg), KJ Vasser (17 ppg) and junior Brayden Long (14 ppg) are all capable scorers and shooters. Keep an eye on the rise and development of sophomores Jehvion Starwood, a 6-2 guard who gained some experience last season as a freshman, and 6-0 guard Dayvion Johnson.
Sovern has beefed up the schedule once again as the Mustangs will play a number of larger schools in preparation for March. That is yet another reason why there might not be a bigger favorite in any class than Yorkville Christian in Class 1A.
The Rockets have won a lot of games over the past six years, averaging 26 wins a year from 2015-16 to 2019-20 before going 16-1 in the shortened covid season. But they’ve never won a sectional championship and have just 10 regional titles in 55 years.
This team, however, has all the makings of ending that sectional drought.
There is an abundance of experience and leadership. There are five players who will be starting their third or fourth year of varsity basketball, starting with the perimeter senior trio of 6-2 Gavin Sarvis (14.5 ppg), 6-2 Carson Seyller (11.1 ppg) and 6-3 Zac Schmidt (10.6 ppg). Nick Carpenter is a fourth double-figure scorer who put up 10.6 points and 6.2 rebounds.
Arguably the most intriguing player is promising 6-7 junior Andrew Sharnowski, who has a tremendous upside and already has two years of varsity experience.
In fairness, this probably isn’t just about the 2021-22 season. This could just be the start for a program that has a contingent of players who are capable of doing some special and memorable things over the next three years.
But you never want to waste an opportunity with the type of talent that’s in the St. Rita stable, even if it’s still very young.
This much we know: this is a program without a single sectional championship in its long history and it’s a team that will be much better in March when they are trying to win its first.
The hype this program and its highly-regarded players have received does put a bulls-eye on their back –– even without having won anything yet and being so young. But the Mustangs have three of the top five prospects in the sophomore class, including the two at the top: 6-9 James Brown and 6-8 Illinois commit Morez Johnson.
The backcourt could be rock solid with up-and-coming sophomore Jaedin Reyna and junior Kaiden Space, a pair of Division I prospects who will be interchangeable.
Add one of the best freshmen in the state, 6-3 Melvin Bell, and St. Rita has a weapon at every position on the floor.
Will they mature? Will they buy in? Will a leader and go-to player emerge? How big of strides can a young team make in four months?
There are a lot of questions for a top team that will be fun to watch.
When we were last watching meaningful high school basketball –– win-or-go-home basketball –– it was March of 2020. And St. Ignatius was fresh off a sectional upset win over DePaul Prep and primed and ready for a sectional title game against Fenwick before Covid shut everything down.
With another year of seasoning under their belt, albeit a shortened 2020-21 season, puts the Wolfpack in unfamiliar territory: preseason top 10 team and one of the Chicago Catholic League favorites.
St. Ignatius has consistently been solid to good for a few decades. There was the only sectional title in 2000 and five regional championships since then. But the potential is there for a true breakthrough season with preseason expectations high and a deep Class 3A run in March realistic.
The senior tandem of versatile 6-3 guard AJ Redd and 6-5 wing Kolby Gilles, an Air Force recruit, are veterans who have been around. They are stat-sheet stuffers who combined to average 21 points, 11.5 rebounds and over four assists last season as juniors.
Richard Barron is one of the hot names in the junior class after averaging 11.3 points and 5.2 rebounds last season. The big-bodied shooter has added several mid-major offers in recent months and does damage with his three-point shooting and strong frame.
Look for 6-8 junior Jackson Kotecki to make a nice jump and provide added impact with his size and developing face-up ability.
The supporting cast is deep, including senior guard Miles Casey who returns after not playing last season. Senior Noah Davis is a leader and true glue guy, senior Kyle McIntyre will space the floor with his shooting and junior guard Emmet O’Shaughnessy will contribute.