‘Battle-tested’ Catholic League basketball teams thrive in postseason spotlight

St. Ignatius College Prep and Fenwick High School matched up in an all-Chicago Catholic League tilt during the IHSA Class 3A Sectional Semifinals on March 1 in Chicago. (Andrew Polk/Medill)

By Andrew Polk
Medill Reports

A 15-school basketball conference isn’t supposed to have seven teams win 20 games in one season.

A team with 21 losses usually doesn’t win a regional championship and advance to a sectional final.

Snapping a 39-year regional championship drought is a big deal.

Although DePaul College Prep and St. Ignatius College Prep came up short in the IHSA State Semifinals, the 2021-22 boys basketball season was historic for the Chicago Catholic League, with eight regional championships, three section titles and two schools making the trip downstate to Champaign. After a grueling league season of facing off against disparate teams in hostile environments, the trophies proved that iron sharpened iron in the CCL.

The IHSA Basketball State Tournament returned in its entirety this year for the first time since 2019, and while only one Chicagoland school won a state title, Glen Ellyn’s Glenbard West, the CCL established itself as the deepest and strongest conference in the area. The CCL’s three section championships, two super-sectional trophies and two third-place finishes compares with the Chicago Public League’s four section titles, three super-sectionals and one second-place crown. The Chicago Public League has 102 boys basketball teams. The CCL has only 15.

St. Ignatius entered the IHSA Class 3A State Playoffs with an 18-12 record, having lost its previous two games by a double-digit margin. Two weeks and five consecutive wins later, the Wolfpack claimed the program’s first super-sectional championship in school history. Head coach Matt Monroe said he credits the competitiveness of the CCL season for bolstering his team for the pressures of the postseason competition.

“I think the Catholic League is one of, if not the best, conferences in the state. When you look at it from top to bottom, it’s a gauntlet, no matter who you’re playing,” Monroe said. “Playing that difficult schedule and going to battle with your CCL foes certainly prepares you for the playoffs.”

St. Ignatius’ playoff run to Champaign included knocking off two CCL opponents in the Chicago-King sectional. The Wolfpack topped Fenwick in the sectional semifinals after the 7-17 Friars won a regional title in Antonio Young’s first season as head coach. St. Ignatius senior guard AJ Redd scored 25 points in the win, and after the game he said playing against the CCL’s variety of play styles was instrumental to his team’s postseason success.

Fenwick High School boys basketball coach Antonio Young addresses his team in the huddle during the IHSA Class 3A Sectional Semifinals on March 1 in Chicago. (Andrew Polk/Medill)

“We’re battle-tested,” Redd said. “We’ve seen every type of team, every type of defense, every set. That’s what prepared us for moments like this.”

St. Ignatius then met De La Salle Institute in the sectional final, prevailing 69-58 to end the 21-loss Meteors’ “Cinderella” run. De La Salle first-year head coach Gary DeCesare, who spent 10 seasons at CCL powerhouse St. Rita, said his team’s regional championship was especially satisfying following a brutal regular season.

“I don’t know how many teams have lost 20 games and won a regional,” DeCesare said. “It’s great for the kids. We’ve had a rough go.”

DeCesare also serves as De La Salle’s director of college athletics recruiting, assisting athletes who aspire to play at the next level. According to DeCesare, the CCL’s storied history and well-coached teams attract college coaches to the conference’s talent.

“Obviously talent is one of the biggest deciding factors, but the next thing college coaches look at is that kids come from good programs,” DeCesare said. “There’s a lot of great programs in this league.”

De La Salle Institute’s Anthony Davis drives by George Westinghouse College Prep’s Askia Bullie during the IHSA Class 3A Sectional Semifinals on March 2 in Chicago. (Andrew Polk/Medill)

The most successful CCL team in recent years has been DePaul Prep. Headed by Tom Kleinschmidt, the Rams followed up a 14-2 pandemic-shortened campaign in 2021 with 22 regular season wins this year. DePaul Prep punched its ticket to Champaign after winning the Class 2A Joliet-Central Super-Sectional, beating CCL regular-season champion Leo Catholic High School in the final.

“After the year we had last year, to bring five new starters back and have the year we’ve had and win a regional, it’s definitely special for the kids and the school,” Kleinschmidt said after the Rams secured their seventh regional championship in the last eight seasons.

Kleinschmidt is a 1991 graduate of Gordon Tech High School, which was renamed to DePaul College Prep in 2014. His number 34 jersey is retired at the school, and a banner commemorating his career hangs from the rafters of the old Gordon Tech gym where his team still plays. As a veteran in the CCL, Kleinschmidt said he took pride in being a part of the prosperous 2022 league season.

“I’ve been in the Catholic League since ’87, and my father played in the league, so it means a whole bunch to me personally,” Kleinschmidt said. “I’m pretty proud of the league.”

DePaul Prep fell 31-24 in double overtime to Nashville High School in the Class 2A State Semifinals on March 10, but the Rams avenged the loss by defeating Rockridge later that night to claim third place in the state tournament. The program collected its second third-place trophy in four seasons, as the Rams finished third in Class 3A in 2019.

Founded in 1912, the Chicago Catholic League is the oldest high school athletic league in Illinois still operating today. St. Ignatius, De La Salle and Loyola Academy of Wilmette are the only founding members of the league still participating, but even as new schools have joined the fold, the legacy of the conference has remained.

“There’s a lot of great gyms and a lot of great atmospheres within our league,” Monroe said. “No matter where you play, there’s probably going to be a great crowd, and it’s probably going to be a fun environment. It’s really the best of what high school basketball has to offer.”

St. Ignatius College Prep’s AJ Redd (2), Emmet O’Shaughnessy (15) and Richard Barron (23) talk strategy after a timeout during the IHSA Class 3A Sectional Semifinals against Fenwick High School on March 1 in Chicago. (Andrew Polk/Medill)

Montini Catholic High School joined the CCL in 2014, but second-year head coach Adam DeMong said he already senses the rich tradition of the conference when his team visits other schools.

“There’s so much history. You can almost feel it in the buildings,” DeMong said. “The history of winning, famous players, historic games, it’s kind of like the old Big East to me.”

DeMong played basketball at Boston College from 2000-03, winning a Big East championship alongside future NBA player Troy Bell. His Montini team lost 18 games this season and finished toward the bottom of the CCL, but he said his team remained confident because of the strength of its schedule. Montini captured its first regional crown since 1983 with playoff victories over Johnsburg and IC Catholic Prep.

“It sharpened us up. We felt like we played a harder schedule in the regular season than in the playoffs,” DeMong said. “The teams we played (in the playoffs) were good, but not as good as the teams we saw night in and night out in our league.”

One aspect of the CCL schedule that provides a unique challenge is the geographical sprawl of the schools in the Chicago area. With schools as far north as Loyola in Wilmette, as far south as Leo on Chicago’s South Side and as far west as Marmion Academy in Aurora, the travel can make a matchup against any level of opponent difficult.

“You have to remember these are high school kids. They’re not college kids,” Kleinschmidt said. “It’s probably their first time sitting on a bus for two hours, and if you take a team lightly, you’re going to get beat.”

With schools of varying enrollments competing in different classes, the CCL has plenty of opportunities to win regional championships across the Class 1A, 2A, 3A and 4A tournaments each season. Still, the eight regional victories this winter ranks tied for third all time for the conference. Although regional titles represent only the first step on a long road to a state championship, Monroe said there’s always value in adding to the conference’s illustrious trophy case.

“Any time we get to play for a championship, it’s a pretty special opportunity,” Monroe said. “By the time you get to the regionals, over half of the state is no longer playing. So for us to be able to play for and win a regional championship is a special thing.”

Playing in its first Final Four in school history on March 11, St. Ignatius lost to Sacred Heart-Griffin 50-39. The Wolfpack matched up with perennial Chicago Public League power Simeon in the Class 3A third-place game, edging the Wolverines 61-59 to finish as the best team in its class from the Chicago area.

Andrew Polk is a sports reporter at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @apolk17.