New group at Glenbard West has big shoes to fill
On the surface, Glenbard West was back to its old tricks in a recent June summer league game.
The Hilltoppers, who capped one of the more dominant seasons in Illinois basketball history by winning the Class 4A state championship in March, were playing their hard-nosed trademark defense against St. Patrick.
Throughout the final frenetic minutes of regulation and overtime, the Hilltoppers were the lone team among the six teams playing on three separate courts with an active bench -- with players cheering, standings and providing words of encouragement -- at the 19th Annual Riverside-Brookfield Summer Shootout.
In the end, the Hilltoppers pulled out a comeback overtime win to complete the three-day tourney with a 4-0 record. The Hilltoppers were among the seven teams that finished the high-profile 72-shootout with an undefeated record.
After rolling to the program's first state championship with 37 victories in 38 games last season, the Hilltoppers have established themselves as an elite program. In the shortened 2021 season, the Hilltoppers won 16 of their 17 games.
But these Hilltoppers will look vastly different from the past two teams. The lack of height was evident, as was the fresh faces. The Hilltoppers lost the bulk of an iconic team -- Braden Huff, Caden Pierce, Bobby Durkin, Paxton Warden, Ryan Renfro, Jack Cardwell, Andrew Daukas, Louis Amabile and Geo Esmalia.
But the Hilltoppers stuck to their program philosophy of teamwork, an unrelenting defense, precision passing, attacking the boards and chemistry to win all four of their games at Riverside-Brookfield.
The faces might have changed, but the victories remained -- for now.
Renfro, an Army recruit, was an ideal example of Glenbard West's culture. The 6-foot-5 Renfro, on Father's Day, was one of the most vocal players during the Hilltoppers' win over St. Patrick, cheering on his former teammates from the bench.
"We try to produce players who are committed to getting better and understand the responsibilities of creating winning characteristics," Glenbard West coach Jason Opoka said. "We believe this senior group is no different and that they will compete at a high level while playing with a chip on their shoulder.
"Our seniors-to-be learned from the best, and they competed every day in practice. We will shock people and continue to play hard. We're excited about the future. We have some big shoes to fill but we definitely think Benji Zander, Luuk Dusek and Logan Brown can be our leaders."
Brown, a 6-foot-5 senior forward, sparked the Hilltoppers late in regulation with a key steal and charge in regulation. Brown said he's excited about the challenge of playing heavy minutes on the varsity after mainly being a practice player last season.
"My role is to get tips, deflections and steals and help my guys on the wing and get rebounds," Brown said. "I was so glad for the experience of playing with the seniors last year. I know a lot of people are counting us out, but I'm trying my best to make sure we'll be back. I realized last year I probably wasn't as good as I thought I was, and learned what my weaknesses were in my game."
Brown said he received a master's class in all the key values required to be a successful basketball player from last season's seniors.
"Playing under those guys last year really helped me," Brown said. "I also learned what it meant to play as a team. Every jump ball or dead ball, the starters were coming together and that really showed me and the younger guys how to be a team."
Dusek, a senior shooting guard, played scant minutes in his junior season, mainly helping the team in practice. He admitted guarding Warden in practices humbled and helped him.
"(Paxton) was very athletic and a hard worker and really challenged me last year," Dusek said. "Those practices really helped all of us because they were really good competition. I focused on learning the plays and system last year and preparing for this year because I knew those guys would be gone."
A senior point guard, Zander made a few flashy plays in the R-B shootout, slashing to the basket and running the offense. His athleticism and ballhandling skills will add a new wrinkle to the offense.
"From last year's team, I really studied Caden's game and was inspired by him," Zander said. "I have some different skills and hoping to add them to the team. I've been working on my shooting and getting stronger."