Preps Talk

Super sophomore AJ Casey makes Tinley Park intriguing team

Super sophomore AJ Casey makes Tinley Park intriguing team

When AJ Casey transferred from Simeon to Tinley Park in June it made news all over the country.

It was surprising for many to see Illinois' best sophomore, and a potential five-star national talent, leave one of the most storied high school basketball programs in the nation for a program that hasn't claimed a regional title since 2008. Simeon has seven IHSA state titles in school history. Tinley Park has three regional titles. 

But the move to the Titans puts the 6-foot-9 forward closer to where he went to middle school (Arbor Park in Oak Forest) and grew up. Casey lived with his father in Chicago as a freshman before moving back in with his mother in Tinley Park for sophomore year. 

From a basketball perspective, Casey has the skill level and size to be an All-Area player as early as this season for Tinley Park. On Sunday the sophomore was one of the best players on the floor at the annual Pangos Frosh/Soph All-Midwest Camp in La Grange. Among a loaded group of underclass prospects from all over the region with many future Division I prospects on the floor in the camp's All-Star game, Casey was one of the camp's top players as he made plays all over.

More limited to an interior role with Simeon during his freshman season on a veteran team that didn't need to run consistent offense through him, Casey flourished in the open floor of the camp setting with the ball in his hands. Handling the ball and scoring, Casey looked comfortable in the post or facing up. Casey's overall versatility at forward shined through as his development on the perimeter will be fascinating to watch this season.

There hasn't been much to be excited about over the past 20 years when it comes to Tinley Park basketball. Having Casey enter the picture is a program-changer that gives the Titans a lot of interest from college coaches and area fans for the upcoming season. 

"We've got high expectations, of course. Especially for myself. We have kind of a tough schedule but we'll get through it," Casey said.  

Ranked as a top-20 national prospect in the Class of 2022 by some major recruiting services, Casey instantly becomes a go-to player at Tinley Park who should be asked to do much more than be a piece amongst many Division I talents. 

Finishing 14-11 with a 6-7 record in the South Suburban Blue last season, Tinley Park played in an underrated conference that featured six of seven members finishing above .500 for the season -- including strong teams in Hillcrest and Oak Forest. By joining that league, Casey adds a new level of intrigue for Tinley Park as they instantly become a team to watch.

"It's been real good. Polishing up my game. Fall, I've been focused more on the team. I've been building chemistry through fall league and things like that," Casey said.

Casey has taken recent unofficial visits to Illinois and Purdue as he's also planning on seeing Louisville in the near future. College recruiting is sure to pick up for Casey as he works his way through high school and gets closer to graduation. 

For now, it's premature to call Tinley Park anywhere near a top-25 program. But it's a long season and the Titans could develop into a team to watch to make a deep postseason run.

Casey gives Tinley Park a centerpiece to build around for the future that not many in the area can match. It also gives the Titans instant credibility entering this season. 

High School Lites Preview: A big week of conference matchups

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NBC Sports Chicago

High School Lites Preview: A big week of conference matchups

High School Lites has a fun show this week as we feature a lot of unique conference battles throughout Chicagoland.

We'll check in with the boys basketball regular season as we have games from the Catholic League Blue, MSL West and CSL South to name a few. On the girls side, our Viewers' Choice checks in on a Class 3A matchup.

High School Lites airs at 11 p.m. on Friday night on NBC Sports Chicago. 

Oswego East at Plainfield North, 6:30 p.m. -- This could be a fascinating game in the Southwest Prairie West. Oswego East (18-10, 11-3) currently leads the league behind seniors Sam Schultz and Will Wolfe. But the Wolves lost to Plainfield North at home on Dec. 13 as they try to avenge that earlier loss. Plainfield North (19-7, 10-4) comes in as one of the area's hottest teams. Winners of 11 straight games -- including two in OT -- the Tigers are playing great ball down the stretch.

Andrew at Lincoln-Way Central, 6:30 p.m. -- We check out a SouthWest Suburban Red matchup here. Lincoln-Way Central (22-7, 6-0) is riding a seven-game winning streak, including a close win over Southland earlier this week. Andrew (15-10, 5-2) has three straight wins of their own as they knocked off Bradley-Bourbonnais during the week. Lincoln-Way Central won the first matchup between these two teams on Feb. 4. 

No. 13 Glenbrook South at No. 7 Evanston, 7:00 p.m. -- The top two teams in the CSL South play for the conference's top spot. Glenbrook South (26-3, 9-0) established a school record for wins with its victory over Conant on Tuesday night. The Titans are led by likely All-Area forward Dom Martinelli as they won the first matchup of these teams in the Titan Dome on January 30. Evanston (24-4, 8-1) lost a tough non-conference game to Kenwood earlier this week. But the Wildkits have a chance to bounce back and claim a share of the conference title with a win. 

Naperville Central at Waubonsie Valley, 7:00 p.m. -- High School Lites gets a glimpse of two talented DuPage Valley Conference teams in this one. Waubonsie Valley (25-4, 5-3) has won three straight games and appears to be finding its stride after dropping out of the Preps Power Rankings. Senior Marcus Skeete continues to lead the charge as the Warriors have recent strong wins over DeKalb and on the road at Oswego East. Naperville Central (19-9, 5-3) is led by seniors Chris Conway (Oakland) and Cameron Dougherty. 

Marengo at Woodstock North, 7:00 p.m. -- The two best teams in the Kishwaukee River play here. Woodstock North (17-11, 7-2) earned a win over Richmond-Burton earlier this week for a new school record. The Thunder kept it close the last time these two teams played with a 51-48 loss on Feb. 4. Marengo (25-3, 9-0) has quietly dominated that area this season, amassing a huge win total and unbeaten mark in the conference. With six straight wins, Marengo is rolling into the playoffs on a high note.

No. 20 Loyola at No. 19 Fenwick, 7:00 p.m. -- The Catholic League Blue division title is decided in this one. The Ramblers (25-4, 13-1) have already clinched at least a share of the conference title following an impressive win over DePaul Prep earlier this week. Loyola remains one of the top defensive teams in the area led by a balanced group that includes Bennett and Jordan Kwicinski. Fenwick (23-6, 12-2) beat the Rams last Friday to stay in the conference race as they need a win to tie Loyola here. The Friars are led by junior forward Bryce Hopkins (Louisville) and sophomore guard Trey Pettigrew. 

East Aurora at Streamwood, 7:00 p.m. -- Some action from the Upstate Eight here. East Aurora (20-9, 14-2) has won six of its last seven as they're in the conference title mix with Glenbard South. Streamwood (15-12, 10-6) has won three of four as they fell to the Tomcats by two points in late Janury.

Riverside-Brookfield at Aurora Christian, 7:30 p.m. -- We see two top teams in the Metro Suburban Blue as the Bulldogs try to clinch the conference title. Riverside-Brookfield (19-8, 9-2) has run off eight straight wins as the Bulldogs are getting hot at the right time. Senior Paul Zilinskas is one to watch for R-B in this one. Aurora Christian (19-6, 8-3) is trying to keep pace with R-B in the standings after a solid win over IC Catholic on Tuesday. The Eagles are led by senior guard Taaj Davis, as he just committed to junior college powerhouse Vincennes last week.  R-B won the first matchup between these two teams with a tight 63-59 win on Feb. 4.

Palatine at Schaumburg, 7:30 p.m. -- The MSL West could get decided in this one. Palatine (18-11, 7-2) has won three of their last four as the Pirates are led by junior center Julian Campbell. Schaumburg (22-6, 7-2) will attempt to match Campbell on the inside with junior big man Chris Hodges as the Wisconsin commit is having a strong season. The Saxons claimed the first game between these two teams on the road on Jan. 10 with a 69-60 road win. But Schaumburg will have to shake off a loss to Cary-Grove from earlier this week.

VIEWERS CHOICE GAME OF THE WEEK

GIRLS: Noble ITW/Speer at Trinity, 7:00 p.m. -- The No. 4 and No. 5 seed in the Class 3A Fenwick Sectional battle for a regional title here. Noble ITW earned a regional quarterfinal victory with a decisive 30-point win over Lake View. Trinity won by forfeit over Senn to advance as they get homecourt advantage. 

CCL/ESCC football programs stacked with FBS level talent this year

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USA TODAY

CCL/ESCC football programs stacked with FBS level talent this year

It's no secret that year in and year out that the former Chicago Catholic League along with the former East Suburban Catholic Conference (now known as the not so creatively named CCL/ESCC conference) traditionally generates some of the top teams in the State of Illinois.

Several 2020 CCL/ESCC conference powerhouse football programs are stacked with FBS level talent, and could provide multiple highly ranked preseason teams and multiple state title contenders. Here are some of the schools and names to consider as we inch ever closer to the 2020 IHSA Football season (which is just a mere 191 shopping days away).

Mount Carmel- The Caravan posted a perfect 14-0 season in 2019 and won the 7A state title including posting an impressive 37-13 title win over Nazareth Academy. Mount Carmel and head coach Jordan Lynch welcomes back 13 returning starters back (8 offense 5 defense) for the 2020 season. Junior QB Justin Lynch is already committed to Temple while the remaining offensive skills are back with RB/LB Kenenna Odeluga along with WR Jaali Parker, WR Jack Butcher plus three starter back on the Caravan offensive line. Junior S Benjamin Perry is already drawing several Power 5 scholarship offers, and while the Caravan will need to replace some key names from the 2019 season, the underclassmen classes are impressive and stocked with talent.

Loyola Academy- The Ramblers (8-4) and head coach John Holecek posted a rare "down" season in 2019 as Loyola saw its season end in the Class 8A quarterfinal round to Marist. While the Ramblers would never make any excuses, many failed to realize just how young the 2019 Ramblers were on both sides of the football. Loyola welcomes back an impressive 16 returning starters (7 offense 9 defense) and the Ramblers could very well have it's largest amount of D1 names on the 2020 squad than any Loyola team in recent history. Loyola Academy sophomore TE James Kyle (6-foot-5, 220 pounds) added his first offer recently from Nebraska and look for Kyle to be a major Power 5 level recruit. Loyola junior OC Josh Kreutz also has a handful of FBS offers and several other Ramblers have been drawing recruiting attention and offers this winter including junior S/ATH Perrion McClinton, junior LB Liam Conaghan, junior RB/LB Vaughn Pemberton plus junior DB Artise Benjamin, sophomore WR Owen Boos and WR Aiden Brownlee.

Marist- The Redhawks and head coach Ron Dawczak also had an up and down season in 2019, but Marist found its way and made a deep run in the Class 8A state playoff field. The Redhawks also brings back several key playmakers from last season. Sophomore QB Dontrell Jackson Jr. started much of the regular season and Jackson Jr. is already on several recruiting radar screens this winter. Junior RB/WR Jovan Marsh is drawing a ton of recruiting attention this winter while freshman WR Ryan Sims (6-foot-3, 180 pounds) and freshman WR/DB Carnell Tate (6-foot-1, 165 pounds) have all the tools to become eventual FBS level recruits. The Redhawks also welcome back three starting offensive linemen, and two who are already holding FBS level offers in junior OT Pat Coogan along with sophomore OL Deuce McGuire. Coogan is one of the most sought after linemen in the Midwest in the Class of 2021. While the Redhawks will need to reload a bit on defense this winter, the overall talent level is impressive for Marist.

St. Rita- The Mustangs also made a terrific run in 2019, from starting the season with a less than spectacular 1-3 record then firing off 9 straight wins before losing to Rochester in the 2019 Class 5A state title game. While St. Rita was a bit more senior heavy last fall compared to others listed here, they still welcome back a strong core for 2020. Sophomore RB Kaleb Brown for the second straight season had a standout season and was no question one of the state's most dangerous playmakers in 2019. Brown is already drawing multiple Power 5 offers this winter and even more big time programs are calling each day. The Mustangs and head coach Todd Kuska also has even more firepower back on offense including three-star ranked junior WR Henry Wilson Jr., junior WR Isaiah Bragg plus speedy junior RB/DB Kyle James. Last year the quarterback duties were shared between sophomore Tommy Ulatowski and junior Brian Johnson and both will play a major role on the field in 2020. I also really liked junior LB Michael Galghan's play last season. He will also be a recruit name to watch for at St. Rita.

Nazareth Academy- The Roadrunner and head coach Tim Racki came up a bit short in 2019, losing in the 7A state title game to Mount Carmel. However, despite some key graduation losses (especially on the defensive side of the football) no one will be having any tag days for the Road Runners anytime soon.

The Nazareth Academy offense will again be loaded in 2020 with 8 returning starters in the fold led by junior four-star ranked QB JJ McCarthy. McCarthy, who will be a three-year starter in 2020, will also have several key names back including sophomore WR Tyler Morris, junior WR Tanner Koziol plus junior WR/TE Landon Morris. The Road Runners will also welcome back standout three-star ranked OL/DL Ryan Keeler, along with two additional starters back on the offensive line in junior Sean O'Hara and junior Domenic Virelli. The Road Runners defense will need to reload a bit but keep an eye on Ryan Keeler along with freshman DB Kaleb Miller and junior DE Daine Hansen (6-foot-7, 240 pounds). Hansen has already added 6 FBS level scholarship offers and is in line for an even bigger spring evaluation period. 

Joliet Catholic Academy- The Hilltoppers ended up dropping out of the 2019 Class 5A playoffs in a stunning 21-14 quarter final loss to Mascoutah. While JCA will need to reload in a handful of key spots for 2020 yet lots of talent remains on the Hill.

The 2020 Joliet Catholic Academy Hilltoppers are stocked with some impressive athletes including sophomore RB Jordan Anderson, junior S Ja'Aire Mack along with junior DB Jabrill Williams plus a big and experience group upfront on the offensive line. Junior S/RB Devean Washington, who suffered an off season injury is in recovery mode and hopefully will be back for his senior season and Washington is yet another high level athlete to watch here. The Hilltoppers will also bring back it's two top quarterbacks from a season ago in sophomore Aidan Voss and junior Anthony Napolitano. JCA also will look towards a strong freshman class from 2019 that had both good overall numbers and talent to boost the varsity level depth in 2020.