Three Fenwick Friars are among the teams selected for the NCAA men’s and women’s tournaments this year.
By Mark Vruno
The 2018 edition of March Madness commences today as the NCAA Basketball Tournament play-in games tip off. There’s still a buzz coming from Rogers Park on the North Side of Chicago, where the Loyola University men’s team is in the “Big Dance” for the first time in more than 30 years (since 1985). Presently, there are 17 Friars enrolled at Loyola, including Kevin Latz ’16, who exclaims, “Students are more excited about Loyola basketball than ever before! I know some students who are even flying to Texas for their first game. A lot of students are talking about watching their basketball games for the first time, which is great for school spirit.” Latz and his classmates are cheering loudly for the 11th-seeded Ramblers, which take on the 6th-seeded Miami Hurricanes on Thursday afternoon at 2:10 p.m. in Dallas.
Fenwick’s own math-teaching whiz Roger Finnell ’59 was a student on campus in the early 1960s, when the Ramblers won the National Championship. Mr. Finnell’s memories of that special time:
“1963 was my senior year at Loyola. I remember everyone being amazed at all of the really good teams we were beating, including Ohio State early in the season — sort of like how Loyola first got noticed this season when they upset Florida, ranked top 5 at the time.
“First semester I was in a tough Political Science class with two basketball bench players. They did not survive to be eligible second semester!
“I remember the night of the championship game. It was a Saturday night, and the game was only on the radio with a television replay that night at around 10:00. Certainly nothing like the coverage these days.
“I remember the famous story of when we were going to play Mississippi or Mississippi State in an early tournament game. The Mississippi governor was threatening not to let the team play us because we had African-Americans on the team (four of five starters). Their coach literally snuck the team out of the state a day early to prevent the governor from blocking their travel to the game site.
“The championship game was very exciting to listen to and very close all the way. I remember the play-by-play announcer (Red Rush?) going wild when we won in overtime.
“I believe the present Loyola team is only one victory shy of matching the 1963 win total. Go Ramblers!”
The Friars of Providence College punched their ticket to the 2018 NCAA Division I Tournament by beating Creighton in overtime in the Big East Tourney quarter-finals last Thursday. Fenwick double-Friar Tom Planek ’14, a 6’7″ senior forward on Provie’s men’s basketball team in Rhode Island, walked on and subsequently earned a scholarship. Those Friars have posted a win-loss record of 21-13 and lost an exciting overtime game to Villanova on Saturday night in the Big East Tournament. On Friday, their 10th-seeded team will play Texas A&M (#7 seed) at 11:15 a.m. in Charlotte, North Carolina (so-called West Region). Planek, who has seen action in 12 games to date this season, earned his bachelor’s degree in three years and will graduate this spring with an M.B.A. He is from Oak Park.
Danny Dwyer is the second of seven members of FHS’s Class of 2014 who played college basketball in the 2017-18 season. Dwyer is a 6’8” senior forward for the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia), which won the Ivy league conference tourney on Sunday with a 68-65 victory over Harvard. In the Midwest bracket, the 16th-seeded Quakers will take on the mighty Kansas Jayhawks in the first round on Thursday at 1 p.m. in Wichita. Originally from River Forest, Dwyer has faced some health-related challenges this season but still is on the team.
Jamal Nixon is a 6’4” freshman guard for the Minnesota State Mavericks (Mankato) in the Northern Sun Conference; hometown: Plainfield. The 24-9 Mavs earned an at-large berth in the Division II NCAA Tournament and are seeded 8th in the Central Region. On Saturday they upset defending national champion Northwest Missouri State, then defeated Southwest Minnesota State 74-70 in the semifinal game on Sunday to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. Next, they face Northern State (from South Dakota) for the region championship and a berth in the final eight. Tipoff is 7 p.m. on Tuesday night in Maryville, Missouri.
Nixon, Dwyer and Planek join these other Friars who hooped it up at the next level this season:
Class of 2014
Maya Garland, is a 5’8” redshirt junior guard for the 24-5 University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Blazers, who play tonight in the Conference USA Tournament; hometown: Oak Park.
Jeremy Ireland is a 6’7” junior forward/center for the Elmhurst College Bluejays (Elmhurst, Illinois) in the CCIW; hometown: Berwyn. Read why he Won’t Stop his dream.
Scottie Lindsey is a 6’5” senior guard/forward for the Northwestern University Wildcats (Evanston, Illinois) in the Big Ten; hometown: Hillside.
Jade Owens, is a 5’6” redshirt junior point guard for Creighton University Bluejays (Omaha, Nebraska) in the Big East; hometown: River Forest.
Ben Peterson is a 6’4” senior forward for the Lawrence University Vikings (Appleton, Wisconsin) in the Midwest Conference; hometown: River Forest.
Class of 2016
Mike Ballard is a 6’4” redshirt freshman guard for the University of Wisconsin Badgers (Madison) in the Big Ten; hometown: Oak Park.
Quinn Fisher is a 5’9” sophomore guard for the Lawrence University Vikings (Appleton, Wisconsin) in the Midwest Conference; hometown: La Grange.
Mike Smith is a 5’9” sophomore guard for the Columbia University Lions (New York City) in the Ivy League; hometown: Burr Ridge.
Class of 2017
Kelly Carpenter is a 6’0” freshman forward for the Edgewood College Eagles (Madison, Wisconsin) in the NACC; hometown: Villa Park.
Mike Fiorito is a 5’10” freshman guard for the Cornell College Rams (Iowa) in the Midwest Conference; hometown: Melrose Park.
One Shining Moment as a Ref
Fenwick alumnus and former high school/small college basketball player Dennis “Denny” Bracco ’71 worked some big-time college basketball games during his nearly 40 years as a referee. There was the NIT (NAIA National Invitational Tournament) in the late 1990s, including Northwestern vs. DePaul in Rosemont and Michigan vs. Notre Dame on St. Patrick’s Day. “That was a fun environment,” Bracco says, laughing. A year later he was officiating a game featuring University of Michigan superstar Jamal Crawford, a 6’5” guard who would get drafted and be with the Chicago Bulls a few months later. (Crawford still plays in the NBA with the Minnesota Timberwolves.)
But the most high-profile game that Bracco has worked played out 18 years ago this weekend in Birmingham, Alabama, during the NCAA Tournament. The contest pitted the 16th-seed South Carolina Gamecocks (20-14) against the top-seed Stanford Cardinal (27-3). Stanford won that first-round, South Regional game by a score of 84-65. Later that weekend in the Round of 32 (second round), Stanford lost to North Carolina. Two weeks later in the Final Four semi-finals in Indianapolis, the Tar Heels fell to the University of Florida. Surviving and advancing, Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo’s Spartans would go on to beat the Gators and win his first national championship.
Bracco describes his shining moment this way: Based on performance, “I was recommended by the Supervisor of Officials of the Mid-Continent Conference,” he explains, which at the time included such teams as Cleveland State, Eastern Illinois, Northern Iowa, UIC, UW-Green Bay, Valpo and Western Illinois. “The NCAA assigned us on ‘Selection Sunday’ the week before. The first round was ‘rookies’ only [refs]. I was working with Steve Welner, a big 6’10” guy from southern Indiana, and Lenny Dickson form Denver.” That high level of exposure helped Bracco land his 12-year gig with the Big Ten Conference.
“The NCAA Tourney is a well-run operation,” he continues. Bracco’s main takeaway from his experience in Birmingham was how tight security was. “We [the officials] were kept separate from the general public. The NCAA put us up in a boutique hotel. They instructed us to dress in our rooms, then a van picked us up at a back door and drove us right to the stadium.”
After hooping for the Friars, Bracco played D3 basketball for the Johnnies at St. John’s University in Collegeville, MN. “I started to referee IM [intramural] basketball games in 1972,” he says of his first officiating experience. Longtime SJU Coach Jim Smith saw that Denny had a knack for it, “so he’d throw me the whistle during scrimmages if I wasn’t playing on the court,” Bracco recalls. (Coach Smith retired in 2015 after 51 years with the university.)
It’s too bad Northwestern and Fenwick’s own Scottie Lindsey (see above) didn’t make the tournament cut this year, Bracco says. “They had some injuries and did not play as well this season,” he observes. After graduating from college, a contact in northern Minnesota helped get Bracco into officiating high-school basketball during the 1975-76 season, “mostly freshman and sophomore games,” he recalls.
Bracco, who grew up in Oak Park and comes from a family of seven boys, put himself through college by working at a corrugated box company. After graduation he stayed with the firm, which transferred him to Atlanta in 1976. “I received more referee training there, and that’s when I really got hooked on officiating,” he says. When he was transferred again, back home in Chicago, his officiating opportunities grew. “There’s just so much high school basketball here,” he says.
By 1981, at the age of 28, he was working a full varsity schedule of three to four games per week. His part-time passion migrated to small, local colleges in the CCIW Conference, where he started out with freshman and junior-varsity games.
“My big break came in ’84,” when a bunch of schools moved up from the Division II ranks to form the aforementioned MCC. “That’s when everything mushroomed for me,” Bracco notes. “I worked in that league for 30 years,” until he stopped blowing his whistle in 2014. He also worked games in the MAC (Midwest Athletic Conference) and the old Great Midwest Conference, recalling a matchup in the early ’90s between DePaul and Marquette at the Rosemont Horizon (now the Allstate Arena).
With Hormel Foods as one of his big customers, Bracco never quit his day job in the packaging and display business, despite officiating three or four games per week during the season. “Some guys do six or seven [games] in a week,” he adds. “I made some good extra money being a ref. It helped put my kids through college.”
At the collegiate level, “some conferences paid $1,500 per game,” he says. “The Big Ten paid the best: between $2,700 and $2,800 at the time.” Bracco retired from officiating in 2014, the year UConn won the title.