Is this the Catholic League’s year? 11 teams advanced to sectionals and are dreaming of state

The only two Catholic League programs to win a Class 4A sectional since the arrival of the four-class system have been Loyola in 2014 and Mount Carmel in 2008.

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Mount Carmel’s Lee “Tre” Marks (11) dunks the ball against St. Rita.

Mount Carmel’s Lee “Tre” Marks (11) dunks the ball against St. Rita.

Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

Catholic League basketball has had plenty of success over the past decade.

With such a large number of schools in the league, including schools in all four classes and in different geographical areas across the city and suburbs, postseason opportunities are dissimilar in comparison to other conferences.

In the last 10 postseasons that have been played, the Catholic League has averaged seven regional champions per year.

The best Catholic League postseason runs were put together in 2015 and 2016.

The league produced eight regional champions, three sectional titles and had three teams bring home state trophies in 2016. However, the nucleus of those teams that season consisted of ones where the schools have either closed — St. Joseph finished fourth in Class 3A and Hales Franciscan finished fourth in Class 2A — or are no longer in the league (Bishop McNamara).

In the highly-successful 2014-15 season, St. Joseph won a state championship and was one of nine regional championship teams from the Catholic League.

Following a subpar 2019-20 season, where there were only four regional champs and not a single team advancing beyond the sectional, and then Covid wiping out the 2021 postseason, the Catholic League shined last year. St. Ignatius finished third in Class 3A, DePaul Prep brought home a fourth-place trophy in Class 2A, Leo won a sectional and the league captured seven regional titles.

But this past weekend the Catholic League broke through in a big way with double-digit regional winners. There will be a whopping 11 teams playing sectional basketball this week throughout all four classes.

Can the best postseason start turn into the greatest postseason ever for the Catholic League?

Starting in Class 2A, injury-plagued DePaul is finally pretty healthy. Coach Tom Kleinschmidt’s team uncharacteristically took its lumps in Catholic League play. The Rams finished just 6-7. But they were besieged by injuries and learned on the fly with a very young, inexperienced group.

Now the well-prepared Rams are the top seed in its Class 2A sectional and are favored to be playing in a super-sectional next week.

Catholic League teams make up three of the four teams in the Class 3A De La Salle Sectional, including No. 1 seed De La Salle and No. 2 seed St. Ignatius. The odds are very good the sectional produces a Catholic League winner among De La Salle, St. Ignatius and Fenwick.

After walloping 26-win Kaneland in the regional final, Marmion has emerged as a sleeper in its Class 3A sectional.

The Cadets may have been just 5-8 in the Catholic League, but they’ve won 21 games, competed against the big boys of the league and even beat Mount Carmel. Marmion would love another crack at Burlington Central in the sectional final, a team it lost to in the championship game of the Plano Christmas Classic back in December.

What the Catholic League will likely need for unparalleled postseason success and glory are upset wins among the heavyweights, particularly in the bigger classes.

The only two Catholic League programs to win a Class 4A sectional since the arrival of the four-class system have been Loyola in 2014 and Mount Carmel in 2008. There have only been four sectional champions in the biggest class in the last 20 years.

“The ultimate goal and what would shine a bright light on the league would be a big school state title,” said Loyola coach Tom Livatino, who led the last Catholic League team to a big school sectional championship.

Livatino is quick to point out the league has had some dominating teams and performances in Class 1A and Class 2A. And he’s right. Leo was a state runner-up and Hales, Seton and Providence-St. Mel won state championships in the smaller classes.

“But getting downstate consistently in the bigger classes and winning a 4A title would be a huge thing for the league,” Livatino said.

The last Catholic League team to reach the State Finals in the state’s biggest class was Brother Rice in 2005. That Bobby Frasor-led team lost to Glenbrook North and Jon Scheyer in the Class AA Elite Eight.

The last big school state championship for a Catholic League program came nearly 40 years ago when Mount Carmel beat Springfield Lanphier in the 1985 Class AA state title game.

More recently, St. Rita was loaded with Division I talent in 2014 and 2015. Coach Gary DeCesare’s teams, which featured the likes of future Big Ten players Charles Matthews, Vic Law and others, reached sectional championship games both years. But the Mustangs ran into city juggernauts and lost to Simeon and Young.

DeCesare says now if he had to do it all over again he would have stayed a Class 3A school instead of petitioning to play in the largest class.

“In hindsight, the bottom line is winning a state championship, regardless of what class you’re in,” said DeCesare, who has returned to the Catholic League and has De La Salle in a Class 3A sectional this week. “But at that time I thought we wanted to play at the highest level, in the largest class.”

Which brings us to the opportunities in the biggest class this year.

St. Rita and Brother Rice, the top two teams in the Catholic League this season, meet in a sectional semifinal Wednesday night. The winner will likely get talented Kenwood in a sectional title game.

A win of that magnitude, over a highly-ranked Public League power, would bring instant credibility to the league. More importantly, it could potentially propel a Catholic League team to Champaign and a berth in the state semifinals. It would be the first time a Catholic League team has reached the Class 4A State Finals since the arrival of the four-class system in Illinois.

Then there is Mount Carmel in Class 3A. Mount Carmel stubbed its toe towards the end of the season but has the Catholic League Player of the Year in DeAndre Craig, a rising star in junior Angelo Ciaravino and the belief it can play with anyone. The Caravan have 26 wins, beat Curie by 15 points and took down 4A power Moline back in December.

But can coach Phil Segroves’ team knock off Hyde Park and — gulp! — No. 1 ranked Simeon in succession this week to win the Glenbard South Sectional?

The table is set for the Catholic League. The roads to Champaign — plenty of them — are open with so many teams scattered among many different sectionals in four different classes.

Another massive opportunity awaits for a league that continues to grab more headlines and achieve higher-level success. But the always powerful Public League and its premier programs stand in the way of advancing up the basketball hierarchy.

“I think the next step for the Catholic League is for someone to win a Class 3A or Class 4A state title,” DeCesare said.

With just two weeks left in the season, 11 of the 15 Catholic League schools still have a chance.

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