Conference calls: With no state playoffs, league races loom large

Here is a look at five of the best conference races to keep tabs on over the next month.

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Loyola’s Jalen Axibal (10) drives the ball past Maine South.

Loyola’s Jalen Axibal (10) drives the ball past Maine South.

Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

Without holiday tournaments or state playoffs, conference races take on added significance as this abbreviated season plays out in coming weeks. Here is a look at five of the best conference races to keep tabs on over the next month.

Catholic League Blue

The favorite: DePaul Prep

Top contender: Fenwick

Best player: Bryce Hopkins, Fenwick

Biggest game: DePaul Prep at Fenwick, Mar. 5

All-conference: Bryce Hopkins, Fenwick; TY Johnson and Brian Mathews, DePaul Prep; Matt Hawkins, Mount Carmel; Christian Henry, St. Rita

Conference outlook:There is a ton of intrigue surrounding this league with ranked teams, star-quality players and programs with some upside trying to make a dent. But it starts with DePaul Prep.

Coach Tom Kleinschmidt’s team has a star in Loyola recruit TY Johnson, who is a potent scorer and creator offensively. The Rams have depth, experience and great size in 6-9 Brian Mathews and 6-9 Dylan Arnett.

Fenwick has Kentucky-bound Bryce Hopkins and some nice pieces surrounding the ultra-productive 6-6 do-it-all forward, including David Gieser, Eian Pugh, Gabe Madej and Max Reese. Hopkins is the rare player truly capable of carrying a team.

Loyola lost a ton from last year’s great team. But as a program, coach Tom Livatino has started to reload each year. Even with five new starters this team is going to compete and play at a high level.

Mount Carmel is a dangerous team with the backcourt of Matt Hawkins and Deandre Craig.

Central Suburban League South

The favorite: Evanston

Top contender:Glenbrook South

Best player:Blake Peters, Evanston.

Biggest game:Evanston at Glenbrook South, Feb. 27

All-Conference:Blake Peters, Isaiah Holden and Elijah Bull, Evanston; Nick Martinelli and Cooper Noard, Glenbrook South.

Conference outlook:Evanston has been the kingpin and remains the team to beat. The Wildkits have won or at least shared six straight CSL South titles with a combined record of 54-6 during that impressive stretch.

The Evanston backcourt of Holden and Peters gives opposing teams a completely different look and problems to contend with. Holden is a jitterbug who gets where he wants while Peters, the sharpshooting, four-year starting guard, has played in so many big, meaningful games in his career.

Don’t forget about the resurgent Glenbrook South program. The Titans, who have won a combined 53 games over the past two seasons, aren’t going anywhere. They will contend and will be primed and ready for a key weekend in late February when Evanston and Glenbrook South play a back-to-back.

Maine South impressed in an opening-season win over Loyola last week. No one enjoys playing the Hawks and against that half-court defense. Can senior Ian Burns and New Trier’s young group make things interesting for the top teams?

East Suburban Catholic Conference

The favorite:Notre Dame

Top contender:St. Patrick

Best player: Troy D’Amico, Notre Dame

Biggest game: Notre Dame at St. Patrick, Feb. 16

All-Conference:Anthony Sayles, Louis Lesmond and Troy D’Amico, Notre Dame; Timaris Brown, St. Patrick; Tyler Van Eekeren, Benet.

Conference outlook: While Notre Dame is clearly one of the elite teams in the state and St. Patrick is a bonafide top 25 team as the season opens, a few of the perennial powers in the league –– Marian Catholic, Benet and St. Viator –– have taken a step back from their typical powerhouse status.

Everyone will be chasing Notre Dame, though, a loaded team that can certainly run the table in conference play. That rivalry game with St. Pat’s next week should be something –– even without the wild student sections.

Benet is Benet, so there will no overlooking coach Gene Heidkamp’s team led by Tyler Van Eekeren.

Southland Conference

The favorite:Thornton

Top contender: Rich

Best player: Brandon Hall, Thornton

Biggest game:Rich at Thornton, Mar. 8

All-Conference:Brandon Hall and Sean Burress, Thornton; Rashard Harris, Kankakee; Gary Clay, Jr., Rich, Emondrick Ford, Bloom.

Conference outlook: This league has depth. While Thornton is deservedly labeled the favorite –– Brandon Hall and Sean Burress both return from last year’s 32-1 team –– the trio of Kankakee, Rich and Bloom all could rise up and surprise.

The merger of Rich East, Rich South and Rich Central immediately makes the newfound Raptors a threat in the Southland. Scoring guard Gary Clay (formerly of Rich East) heads an intriguing group that includes the wiry and active 6-6 Devonta Blevins.

Bloom graduated all five starters but junior big man Emondrek Ford is an emerging player in the Class of 2022.

Kankakee will remain dangerous. The 1-2 punch of guard Rashard Harris and 6-6 Willie Strickland return from a team that won 27 games a year ago. Plus, Amarion Osbourne is a 5-10 scoring whiz who put up big numbers last season at Vocational, including a 43-point outburst in the Big Dipper, before transferring to Kankakee.

Southwest Suburban Blue

The favorite: Homewood-Flossmoor

Top contender: Bolingbrook

Best player:Kai Evans, Bolingbrook

Biggest game: Bolingbrook at Homewood-Flossmoor, Mar. 12

All-Conference:Kyonte Thomas and Kai Evans, Bolingbrook; Christian Meeks, Homewood-Flossmoor; Matas Deksnys, Lockport; Ryan Sucha, Lincoln-Way East

Conference outlook: This is as unpredictable as this league has been in quite some time, though the typical favorites are again going to be battling for the top spot.

But both Bolingbrook and Homewood-Flossmoor, while still talented, are vulnerable. Between the two there are very few returning starters, and their top talent is still young.

Which team can grow up quickly in a short season will determine who is on top in the middle of March.

Lincoln-Way East is the most experienced team and has the pieces to make a run at a conference championship. The nucleus of 6-4 Cameron Mallory, 6-5 Ryan Sucha, 6-5 Jack Vegter and 6-6 Khalil Ross have size and length.

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