For the second consecutive season, Benet has been one of the best boys basketball programs in the area despite not having the kind of star talent we're accustomed to seeing in the top 25.
Last season's team nearly won the Class 4A state championship over Curie despite not having a Division I recruit. This year's version of the Redwings currently sits at No. 9 in the CSN Preps Power Rankings. Their impressive 11-3 start includes a runner-up finish at the loaded Pontiac Holiday Tournament in which Benet gave unbeaten No. 1 Simeon a close game for the title.
Benet has played one of the most difficult non-conference schedules in the area this season and the East Suburban Catholic Conference is loaded again -- with three programs currently in the CSN Preps Power Rankings. And Benet has stayed in the top 10 in the rankings and been one of the top teams in the area -- for the second consecutive season -- despite not having a breakout Division I prospect.
"We have guys who have been through it a little bit," Benet head coach Gene Heidkamp said. "We have four guys who played in the state championship last year. Guys are battle-tested. But they're playing different roles now. I would have been disappointed if we weren't competitive."
Seniors like Jack Nolan and Liam Lyman played big minutes on last season's runner-up team and have blossomed into more mature two-way players with Nolan taking things to another level at the Pontiac Holiday Tournament. While Nolan is the team's lead guard and best creator, Lyman is a knockdown shooting option who has improved his overall game.
Junior Justin Enochs has also been solid while upgrading his role this season, becoming one of the team's defensive stoppers after being a reserve last year. The team's young big men and juniors have stepped up to form a nice rotation of players that is taking good shots and defending as Benet continues to look like an unselfish and seamless offense.
Benet's players certainly deserve a lot of credit for its position in the rankings early this season but Heidkamp has also tweaked his style of play to fit this roster a bit differently. These perimeter-oriented Redwings teams don't have star Division I post players like Frank Kaminsky or Sean O'Mara to work the ball inside to.
"We rely a lot on perimeter shooting this year, Heidkamp said. "We've shot probably the highest number of threes since I've been here. But that's also a makeup of the perimeter players that we have."
Heading into Martin Luther King weekend, Benet will have one of the toughest 24-hour stretches that any team will see all season. Friday night's ESCC road game at No. 24 St. Patrick is a tough enough test with how well the Shamrocks have played this season.
After the tough conference clash, the Redwings play in the Wheaton-Warrenville South tournament beginning at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday morning. Benet's opponent, Hinsdale South, is unbeaten in the West Suburban Gold, and playing very good ball lately as junior forward Zion Griffin continues to blossom.
If Benet is lucky enough to survive Hinsdale South on 13 hours rest, they could get a second-round matchup with No. 10 Homewood-Flossmoor a few hours later at 4:30 p.m. That doesn't even factor Monday's two games in a loaded field that features seven teams that have been ranked at some point this season.
Benet has made tournament runs in various events the past two years, so they're accustomed to this sort of scheduling, but it is still a daunting challenge that will prepare this team for March. Since the Kaminsky and Sobolewski era, Benet has been able to play a tougher schedule that includes a lot of showcase events and tournaments that the program has used to its advantage.
"With non-conference we're always looking to schedule the tough teams because we think in the long run it will help us with two things," Heidkamp said. "We think it gives us the best chance to be competitive in March when we see so many styles of play and play so many good teams. And we also want to play the best programs that we can have our kids play against. And I think our kids really respond to that challenge."
This weekend will certainly be a major test for Benet and it should give them a good feel for the rigors of the postseason. Regardless of the results, Benet will have to brush themselves off quickly to prepare for the rest of the ESCC. Marist is still unbeaten at 18-0 this season and that is the first game Benet has to play once this weekend's tournament is done.
"Our goal is to continue to get better. We feel like if we can get through the difficulty of this schedule that is in front of us, at the end of the day no matter what happens, we're going to have a chance to be prepared for March," Heidkamp said. "It doesn't guarantee success in March. But when we look back on it, we'll know we were prepared. If it doesn't go our way, it's not because we took the easy road."