City/Suburban Hoops Report Three-Pointer: Coach of the Year race, Oswego East and Oak Lawn’s historic seasons

A look at the Coach of the Year race and two teams having historic seasons.

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Hillcrest’s head coach Don Houston watches as the Hawks play Tinley Park in 2020.

Hillcrest’s head coach Don Houston watches as the Hawks play Tinley Park in 2020.

Allen Cunningham/For the Sun-Times

There are still a few weeks of the regular season and a whole postseason to play, but there are plenty of outstanding candidates worth highlighting in the Coach of the Year race. 

Just because Glenbard West was the preseason No. 1 team, don’t discount the job Jason Opoka has done with the Hilltoppers. 

The second-year head coach significantly upgraded the schedule and still has his team with a perfect 24-0 record. He’s implemented a disciplined and disruptive 1-3-1 defense that has crippled opposing teams, while a team with a star and Division I talent plays as unselfishly as any you will find. 

This is not a typical highly-ranked Simeon team loaded with Division I prospects. And while ranked high in the preseason there were plenty who had doubts if this team would contend for titles. 

Robert Smith, however, has done one of the best jobs of his illustrious career and can make a great case. Simeon won the Pontiac Holiday Tournament, the state’s toughest conference and is now a Class 3A state favorite. 

Hillcrest’s Don Houston is clearly on the short list. Houston didn’t return a single starter from a year ago, but he has the Hawks 21-2 and gave No. 1 Glenbard West all it could handle early in the season. 

Wheaton Warrenville South’s Mike Healy has a team that was unranked in the preseason and wasn’t even picked to win its conference. The Tigers, with minimal overall talent, are once again the epitome of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Healy has a 23-2 team that has climbed the rankings all season and is currently ranked No. 9

There is always a lengthy list of coaches deserving mention and compelling arguments can be made. A few others to include in the candidacy conversation include New Trier’s Scott Fricke, Brother Rice’s Bobby Frasor, Oswego East’s Ryan Velasquez and Rolling Meadows’ Kevin Katovich.

Fricke has a 22-2 team that is a bonafide state title contender. 

Frasor has arguably the best team in the Chicago Catholic League without a senior starter and is 20-2. 

Velasquez has led a non-descript Wolfpack to a 24-1 record and likely top sectional seed after being unranked in the preseason. 

Katovich lost last year’s Player of the Year in Max Christie, was left out of the preseason top 25, plays with plenty of youth and is 22-3 and ranked in the top 10. 

But maybe the frontrunner right now is Hillcrest’s Don Houston. There is still plenty of basketball to be played, but think about this: Hillcrest didn’t return a single starter from a year ago but is 22-2 and gave No. 1 Glenbard West all it could handle early in the season.

School record in reach for Oswego East

When coaches submit their sectional seeds next week there will be no debate who to place on the top line of the Oswego Sectional.

Oswego East continues to be a ranked team that is cruising right along without a whole lot of fanfare. The Wolves are now 24-1 and in the midst of the best season in program history. With a win Tuesday night over Minooka, coach Ryan Velasquez’s team will break the school record for most wins in a season. 

Senior Patrick Robinson leads the Wolves in scoring at 13 points a game while senior guard DeVon Oregon adds 12 points a game.

But Mekhi Lowery has blossomed as a junior. With his length and versatility, the 6-5 perimeter threat has emerged as a presence in so many ways. He not only averages 12 points a game but adds 7.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists while impacting defensively, leading the team in blocks, steals and deflections. 

Now can Oswego East, which has won two regional titles in the 16-year history of the program, win its first sectional title?

The schedule hasn’t exactly been a meat grinder. There are wins over Yorkville Christian, Marian Catholic and Bolingbrook, while the lone loss came to Homewood-Flossmoor. But all the ingredients are there to make a deep state tournament run, including being the top-seed in a very winnable sectional. 

Oak Lawn wins the conference

The 2019-20 season at Oak Lawn produced the most wins in the program in nearly 50 years. 

Whether this year’s team can match that win total –– the Spartans are currently 18-4 on the year –– remains to be seen. But this group has something no team has done in 39 years: win a conference championship.

“We’ve talked about that ad nauseam in our program,” said coach Jason Rhodes of winning a conference championship. “It’s been a goal since I’ve taken over.”

A trio of seniors, Lawrence (12.6 ppg, 7.5 rpg), 6-3 Johnny McGowan (10.6 ppg)) and Nicco Reyes (8.3 ppg), and junior shooter Ayham Salah (9.8 ppg) have led the way for Oak Lawn. 

Under Rhodes, this has been the best basketball run at Oak Lawn since the early 1970s. This should be the third 19-plus win season in the past five years. 

“You have to take steps as a program,” said Rhodes. “We’ve been close before, bridesmaids a few times, so it’s exciting to break through.”

Oak Lawn is solid defensively with what Rhodes calls “an anchor inside” with 6-5 big body Davion Lawrence and guards that apply ball pressure. The offensively efficient Spartans shoot a lot of threes and have taken advantage of second-chance scoring opportunities. 

Rhodes’ team clinched the South Suburban Red last week. Winning the program’s first regional title since 1988, however, could be some tough sledding with the likes of Kenwood, Brother Rice, Bloom, St. Rita and Homewood-Flossmoor all with the Spartans in the Thornwood Sectional. 

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