By Joe Henricksen
There was a reason why the City/Suburban Hoops Report had Mt. Carmel ranked No. 12 and DeLaSalle No. 13 in the preseason rankings. And now they are showing why. The Chicago Catholic League opened eyes during regional action, even while arguably it's most talented team -- Hales Franciscan -- made an early exit from the Class 2A tournament.
The Catholic League will have seven teams playing next week in Class 4A and Class 3A sectional play. The story, though, were the eye-opening wins the league strung together during regional play. The Catholic League went head-to-head in three games against the Chicago Public League Friday night and won all three, including Mt. Carmel's upset over state title contender Farragut and McDonald's All-American Mike Dunigan. Despite plenty of hype, Farragut didn't win their conference, didn't win the city and didn't even win a regional.
While Mt. Carmel's win over No. 2 seed Farragut was the headliner, DeLaSalle took care of a strong Lincoln Park team and Brother Rice advanced with a win over Morgan Park in other Catholic League-Public League matchups. DeLaSalle and Mt. Carmel will meet one another next week, with one of the Catholic League powers playing in the championship game in arguably the toughest sectional in state tournament history. The winner will face the Whitney Young-Oak Park winner.
Loyola Academy beat Waukegan and Leo beat King to also advance to a sectional semifinal, and a young but dangerous Seton Academy, which lost transfer Terry Johnson to St. Rita in the offseason, came up with yet another impressive Catholic League win. No. 8 seed Seton upset top-seeded Hillcrest to claim its own regional title and put itself in position to go much deeper in a very winnable Class 3A sectional, where they will play No. 9 seed Crete-Monee in the sectional semifinal. Finally, little-known Guerin out of River Grove knocked off Lakes on Friday night. Guerin will face Grayslake Central in the Antioch Sectional.
In my mind, the Catholic League has been somewhat overlooked this season. There were just too many teams that had solid seasons for it to be ignored the way it was, with so much talk and conversation being directed towards the talent, depth and balance in the Chicago Public League. But when you get into state tournament play, there are many more factors involved in head-to-head play than just pure overall talent and athleticism. Coaching and preparation is largely underestimated, which goes right along with halftime adjustments, individual matchups and adapting to certain styles and systems.
In the end, though, this is a league that has not had a team play for a big school state championship (Leo and Hales have won Class A titles) -- or even bring home a state trophy from a top four finish -- since Gordon Tech did so with Tom Kleinschmidt in 1990. The Catholic League had a nice representation on the last day of the basketball season from 1982-1990, with Mendel Catholic finishing second in 1982, Mt. Carmel winning the 1985 state championship, St. Francis De Sales as a state runner-up in 1988 and the Gordon Tech team in 1990. Since then, however, the Catholic League has been absent from playing on the state's biggest stage.
With a couple more wins here and there next week, the Chicago Catholic League has a chance to make this March one to remember.