Nationally ranked Glenbard West deals with the hype, amps up its schedule for March playoff run

Glenbard West basketball is in unfamiliar territory. At no time in its history has Hilltoppers basketball clearly been front and center in the high school basketball world.

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Glenbard West’s Ryan Renfro (45) reacts during the game against Sierrra Canyon.

Glenbard West’s Ryan Renfro (45) reacts during the game against Sierrra Canyon.

Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

Glenbard West is in unfamiliar territory. At no time in history have the Hilltoppers been front and center in the high school basketball world.

Coach Jason Opoka has had to deal with the transition from “very good” to “elite” over the past month, which has to be surreal — even in the best of circumstances — considering it’s a relatively unknown basketball powerhouse in Glen Ellyn.

Glenbard West is nationally ranked.

They’re 26-1, selling out gyms and arenas as the No. 1 team in the state. The hype is real, even after losing for the first time at the buzzer to California’s star-studded Sierra Canyon team Saturday night before a sold-out crowd at Wintrust Arena.

This team has evolved into the most hyped suburban team since Jalen Brunson led Stevenson to unprecedented heights over a three-year run from 2013 to ’15.

There’s no question a group of seniors, several of whom have been playing together for years, are at the forefront of bringing all the attention to this basketball program. They’re the attraction because of their individual talents and how they play together.

The star, 6-10 Braden Huff, is headed to powerhouse Gonzaga. Any time you put “Gonzaga recruit” in a sentence, it’s attention-grabbing and means something to the outside basketball world.

While Huff and fellow seniors Caden Pierce, Bobby Durkin, Ryan Renfro and Paxton Warden are the appeal, Opoka is the one who built the stage for these players to shine.

A little over two years ago, Opoka, then in his first year as head coach, quickly realized he had something special. With sophomores leading the way in that 2019-20 season, Opoka knew the trajectory of this team. And it pointed toward being exceptional.

After missing out on the experience of a March run last year because of COVID — or playing in any truly meaningful games — Opoka was determined to ramp up the schedule and the memorable opportunities for his team.

One of the first steps was the tough decision to shut down its own holiday tournament at Christmastime. Glenbard West has hosted a holiday tournament for years, though the round-robin affair traditionally has been soft in competition and has lacked buzz.

The Hilltoppers made the move to the Jack Tosh Holiday Tournament at York and scheduled major tests against Young, Sierra Canyon and Simeon.

Opoka will get a little testy if you mention “Glenbard West is a football school.” He supports the school’s football excellence, but hearing over and over again that “it’s a football school” when you’re the head basketball coach doesn’t sit well.

“I’m so sick of hearing it,” Opoka said. “For us to get where we want to be, we have to change the mindset that this can be a basketball school. I am going to do everything in my power to challenge seventh and eighth graders, to challenge our freshmen and sophomores to be in the position of a Braden Huff or a Caden Pierce. I am going to use them as role models for the program, to show this is what they can be doing, playing on ESPN like we just did.”

Opoka says he and his coaching staff are “very proud” of what the Hilltoppers have accomplished. There is, however, more work to be done. First, there are three conference games and one marquee game (against Simeon) left in the regular season. Then it’s on to the most important work.

“Our overall goal, our team’s goal, our players’ goal, has not been touched yet,” Opoka said. “And that can only be touched when we start our process of those seven games in the state tournament.”

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