Fenton enjoying a record-setting season
Fenton senior Elizabeth Aguirre starting noticing something special building last summer.
The Bison laid some seeds of growth in a losing season in the shortened 2021 campaign, but their strong play in the highly competitive Morton College summer tournament was a more encouraging sign.
"We had a few rough games and a lot of games where we were missing some players, but toward the end, I saw our potential for the team," Aguirre said. "Even in my sophomore year, I remember pointing out to some of my teammates that our entire starting lineup was made of underclassmen, and it made me excited for the future because of the potential I saw."
Fenton coach Dave Mello said his team gained valuable experience and motivation playing in the Morton summer tourney.
"We put in a lot of hard work in the summer, and finished well against some good teams," he said. "I remember in the summer we all looked around at the conference banners in our school, and thought we should be top three in our conference. It was good to hear them say that. Many of them were softball players, and we had a really good softball season. That helped with our confidence and how well we did late in the summer league."
A week before the start of the playoffs, the Bison (23-4, 12-3 Upstate Eight Conference) have been one of the top surprises in Chicagoland girls basketball. The Bison set a program record for wins in a season after beating Zion-Benton on Thursday, topping the previous mark of 22-8 in 1998-99.
Senior Hailey Miller can appreciate Fenton's rise up the conference standings and notching a 20-win season due to her background with the program. The Bison, who open the Class 3A playoffs against St. Francis in a St. Francis regional semifinal on Monday, host conference leader South Elgin (22-5, 16-0) on Wednesday.
"Beating the school record for number of wins in a season is an honor," Miller said. "It's really exciting to be a part of a team that made history at our school. I hope to continue our success in regionals.
"This program has been building for years. My older sister was part of the first basketball team by Coach (Dave) Mello at Fenton, so I've been able to watch and participate in the growth we've accomplished over the past five years. We've adapted as fast-paced system which is super aggressive and fun to play."
Aguirre, who's averaging 6.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.3 steals a game, said the Bison relished celebrating the single-season win record at home.
"Setting the record just helped us be more sure of ourselves than we've been," she said. "We've gotten a ton of support from our friends and families. After setting the record, we also have seen a big increase in support from the rest of the school. It was a special moment in our gym. We were all very excited about it.
"This team has a bond that we set on and off the court. It makes everything we do that much more enjoyable."
The Bison built a reputation in Mello's first few seasons for hoisting 3-pointers at a historic pace, leading to some amazing moments and embarrassing defeats. Many games, the Bison would attempt over 40 3-pointers, highlighted by setting a national record for 3-point attempts in a season in each of Mello's first two seasons.
Mello said his program built an identity based on their 3-point shooting, but his 2021-22 team is a different model. A balanced squad with good rebounders is a key factor in Fenton's rise to second place in the conference.
Sophomore Gracen Haska is averaging 14.3 points and 10.1 rebounds, highlighted by a 30-point and 20-rebound effort against Bartlett. Senior Sophia Haska is averaging 11.5 points and 9 rebounds, with Miller averaging 7.5 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 2.4 steals per game.
Junior Kaitlyn Hoffing is averaging 6.1 points, 4 assists and 3.2 steals, and broke the school record with 8 3-pointers against Westmont. Junior Adriana Rocha, the team's top defender, is averaging 5.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists.
"We've heard that it wasn't basketball, that we were just running up and down shooting," Mello said of his past teams. "In the beginning it was a way to drum up interest and get more girls out. We did that and found success, but not this kind of success. We were able to take bits and pieces of that, tailor it to what we have on the team this year. We actually shoot more 2-point shots than 3-pointers.
"Our passing has been the basketball skill that's taken them to the next level. Our passing has really played a bigger part in improved shooting percentage. We've beaten some pretty solid teams. It's been a lot of fun for them.
"I'm really proud of what they've accomplished and we've received a lot of school support, especially the night we broke the record. We cut down the nets, and it was great to see all the smiles."