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A football town turns to hoops: Glenbard West is the preseason No. 1 team

The Hilltoppers don’t just have a star player; they have a superstar — Gonzaga recruit Braden Huff — leading a team that blew the doors off all its opponents this summer. 

Glenbard West’s Brendan Huff, left, shoots over Caden Pierce in practice.
Glenbard West’s Brendan Huff, left, shoots over Caden Pierce in practice.
Allen Cunningham/For the Sun-Times

Glen Ellyn is a football town. Glenbard West is one of the premier football powerhouses in the state. The team calls itself ‘‘the Hitters’’ as often as it does the Hilltoppers, the school’s actual mascot.

‘‘The Hitters’’ play in a grass stadium on the banks of Lake Ellyn. It’s all very idyllic.

But there is a gym just up the hill and around the corner from Duchon Stadium. Glenbard West has produced a number of excellent basketball players in the last several seasons. John Shurna, Evan Taylor and Justin Pierce all had great success in college.

But this season is different. The Hilltoppers don’t just have a star player; they have a superstar — Gonzaga recruit Braden Huff — leading a team that blew the doors off all its opponents this summer.

Huff is 6-11 with guard skills. He can shoot, pass and do it all. There have been few players with his size and skill in the history of Illinois high school basketball. That’s a big statement that Huff shouldn’t have much of a problem living up to this season.

‘‘[Player of the Year] is a goal of mine, for sure,’’ Huff said. ‘‘But it’s definitely team first. The big goal we have circled is a state championship. We’re really excited about what we can do this season, especially since Glenbard West isn’t really known as a basketball school. So to bring a state title here, I think that would be really cool.’’

Caden Pierce, the younger brother of Justin Pierce and University of Cincinnati receiver Alec Pierce, is a 6-6 senior committed to Princeton. In many ways, he’s a shorter version of Huff, able to affect the game on the perimeter and in the post.

There’s more size with a pair of Army recruits, 6-8 Ryan Renfro and 6-7 Bobby Durkin, who transferred in from Hinsdale South. Paxton Warden, a 6-4 senior with interest from Division II schools, rounds out the starting lineup.

The entire team can shoot, but the Hilltoppers’ calling card is defense. Glenbard West uses all of its mobile size to devastate opponents with a full-court 1-3-1 defense.

The entrance to Glenbard West’s gymnasium.
The entrance to Glenbard West’s gymnasium.
Allen Cunningham/For the Sun-Times

‘‘It’s really fun to play,’’ Huff said. ‘‘With our length, it leads to a lot of tips and deflections, so we’ve embraced that. We want to play fast, and the defense leads to steals and getting out in transition.’’

Seniors Jack Cardwell, Andrew Dauksas and Louie Amabile will contribute off the bench.

‘‘We feel privileged that we get this opportunity with this group of seniors,’’ Glenbard West coach Jason Opoka said. ‘‘The goal is to make this season memorable. We scheduled some of the top-tier teams in Illinois, and if we take some bumps along the way, it doesn’t matter. The goal is to be at our best at playoff time.’’

The group of seniors, other than Durkin, has been playing together since elementary school. That chemistry will give Glenbard West an extra advantage in this strange season. So many teams barely played together last season because of the pandemic.

It’s fairly rare for a suburban public school to earn the preseason No. 1 spot.

‘‘There’s a buzz in the community, but it is still a football town,’’ Opoka said. ‘‘Glen Ellyn is a great place. They are so supportive. Everybody is going to be here. We just want to give everyone an opportunity to have fun. Normal fun. And we’re gonna play as hard as we possibly can.’’

Listen to the season debut of the No Shot Clock high school basketball podcast. Michael O’Brien and Joe Henricksen break down the preseason Super 25: