Lessons for a Lifetime

An alumnus reflects on the Friars’ improbable basketball championship 54 seasons ago.

By Mike Shields ’67

I’ve traveled many ‘roads’ after leaving Fenwick, but I have never forgotten the lessons I learned as a member of the basketball team and particularly the 1966 team that won the Chicago Catholic League title that year – against significant odds.

We won the title in March of ’66; one of many championships won by Fenwick teams throughout its long history. But my own sense as a student of that history is that few of these teams had as amazing and improbable road to a title as we had, and it is that story that I’d like to share and use to reinforce the idea that, although the title was great, it was the ‘lessons learned’ along the way that were more lasting and more important.

As we began the 1965-66-basketball season, we knew we had a well-regarded coach in Bill Shay, but it had been almost 15 years since Fenwick had won a Catholic League Senior (over 5’ 9” players) basketball championship. In fact, the previous season, Fenwick’s Senior team finished at .500 in league play, out of the playoffs, and were maddeningly inconsistent – beating a contender one night and getting blown out another. To be honest, there was cautious optimism at best as we opened the season led by 6’6” senior center Dennis Bresnahan (St. Bernadine – Oak Park), the lone starter from the previous year and who would be joined by three talented underclassmen, including junior forward Joe Grill (Divine Infant – Westchester), junior guard/forward Steve Flanagan (Ascension – Oak Park), and junior guard John Sanderlin (St. Luke – River Forest), who had led their Frosh-Soph team coached by Jerry Hughes to a 20-0 record the year before. Coach Shay knew he might have something special in this young, untested team, but it was mostly a hope.

Two-sport athletes: Flanagan, shown scoring in game action, also played football at Fenwick.

With Grill and Flanagan, both starting football players, not joining the basketball team until late November, things started out surprisingly rough, losing seven of our first 10 league games, albeit four by three points or less. As ‘ninth man’ on a team that usually played just seven players, my role was to scrimmage against the starters in practice and help prepare them for the games. I knew Grill, Flanagan and Sanderlin from our grammar-school days, and each one was a winner – rarely losing in anything. Both Sanderlin and Flanagan were in the so-called ‘A’ group academically and their basketball ‘IQs’ were just as impressive. Furthermore, even in scrimmages they played to win. I would say the biggest thing that these guys brought to the team was their deep-rooted will to win, a trait perhaps even more important than raw talent. And win we would.

“I always thought that the largest and one of the most impactful classrooms at Fenwick back in the day was the gym – today’s Lawless Gym.”

Mike Shields ’67

CCL mainstay: Long-time Friars’ hoops Head Coach Bill Shay came to Fenwick in 1950.

The Fenwick aura of excellence

To be a student at Fenwick in the mid-60s was to be surrounded by greatness in one’s teachers and coaches. Tony Lawless, our legendary Athletic Director, had joined Fenwick when it opened in 1929 out of Loyola University and an illustrious basketball career there. He hired swimming coach Dan O’Brien (Class of 1934), whose teams would win 28 straight Catholic League titles; Lawless himself would coach the football teams, which over his 25 years (1932-57) would compile a Rockne-like record of 172-40-6 and a winning percentage of .803. In those years, Fenwick’s football teams would win 14 division titles, five Catholic League titles and three City Championships. In 1950, Lawless selected Bill Shay, another highly successful coach, to lead Fenwick’s basketball teams. I would say Lawless, O’Brien and Shay, all successful intelligent coaches, not only believed in excellence but were very (very) serious guys who helped develop the likes of 1953 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lattner (Fenwick ’50) at Notre Dame [who also played basketball and ran track in high school], 1964 Olympic Diving Gold Medalist Ken Sitzberger (Fenwick ’63) and legions of other great Fenwick athletes.

1962 Prep Bowl: Look at that crowd at Soldier Field!

As Athletic Director, Lawless had also brilliantly selected 24-year old John Jardine as football coach, and Jardine proceeded to a 45-6-1 record over five years (1959-63) and an epic 40-0 Prep Bowl victory in 1962 over Schurz in front of 91,000 fans at Soldier Field. That type of serious winning ethos was palpable and expected – academically and athletically. Fenwick teams didn’t always win but they all fought very hard to win and, as our 1966 basketball team continued its journey, we all had imbibed the Fenwick ethos of excellence and high expectations. How could we not?

Bill Shay knew we could be great. We weren’t totally sure about that after our string of early season losses but, as the season wore on, our team – led by the steady and outstanding play of our Bresnahan (captain) and the development of the new three underclassmen starters – started to gel. Our practices were grueling, and Coach Shay brought the entire team, starters and non-starters alike, together us as a winning team with his experienced combination of toughness and teaching. As an aside, there were many nights after a long practice when several of us, including Sanderlin, would stand in the winter cold at the corner at East Ave. and Madison St. to catch a late West Town bus home. We were all tired, but were growing as a team and we began to win. Significantly, at a certain point, I think the winning attitudes of Grill, Flanagan and Sanderlin really kicked in and created a powerful dynamic of confidence, mental toughness and winning. They knew they were winners and were not going to settle for anything less. Adding to the new dynamic was the amazing development of two young (and tall) sophomores, 6’ 4” Jim Martinkus and 6’ 8” Bob Fittin, who Coach Shay was beginning to gradually work into the line-up: a smart move as they would both play pivotal roles in key games ahead. Our team finished strong with four victories in our last five league games and tied for 2nd place with archrival Loyola in the North Section. So, to get into the four-team Catholic League playoff, we had to beat Loyola, to whom we had lost twice during the season.

The run begins

On the night of March 6th, Fenwick met Loyola at DePaul University’s Alumni Hall with its sunken court (aka ‘basketball pit’) and seating for about 5,000 on the DePaul campus. With Bresnahan and Grill combining for 32 points, Fenwick rolled to a 59-46 victory. We were not surprised as we expected the victory. Now that we were in the league playoffs, next up for us on Saturday night would be St. Rita led by their 6’8” All-American center George Janky, We were wary but still confident. Frankly, we were the only ones who were confident we could beat St. Rita, particularly as we had also lost to them twice in the regular season.

That Saturday night, the entire Fenwick student body showed up and Alumni Hall was jam-packed. I was on the bench with a front-row seat, and the cheering was so loud at times that we could not hear Coach Shay in the huddle. Our team though was so cohesive by then that instincts took over – our guys were determined to beat St. Rita, who frankly did not show us much respect. That would change as the game wore on, and it was clear that Fenwick was ‘in the game’ – and could even win it! After four intense quarters of play, regulation time ended with the score tied 60-60. It was a bit surreal, to be honest. In overtime, neither team scored until the very end; with St. Rita holding the ball for the final shot, guard Sanderlin stole the ball and passed it to Bresnahan, who was fouled. With just four second left, Bresnahan sunk both free throws and Fenwick had won another improbable victory 62-60. Bedlam reigned! Thirty minutes after the game though, Coach Shay brought us ‘back to earth’ and reminded us that we ‘had not won anything yet’ – the ‘only thing’ we did was earn the right to play powerful defending City Champ Mt. Carmel for the Championship. We were not favored.

So on Wednesday night March 16th, 1966, DePaul’s Alumni Hall was packed again with nearly 5,000 fans, including local celebrities such as DePaul Coach Ray Meyer. The game, with a tipoff at 8:30 p.m., was broadcast in prime time across the Chicago area on the new UHF TV channel WFLD. It was ‘a spectacle’ – even bigger then the St. Rita game. Mt. Carmel brought a record of 27-2 into the game while Fenwick’s was 15-11 and we had already lost two early-season games to the Caravan. As much of an underdog as we were on paper, though, I did not feel like an ‘underdog’ and neither did my teammates. Probably the biggest challenge we had was to stay focused and play our game and not get swept up in the spectacle of it all. We seemed to have reached a level at which we felt we could beat anyone. Coach Shay, as always, calmly went over the game plan before the game: shut down All-State guard Greg Carney (he scored just 2 points in the first half), prevent their big All-Chicago center Dave Lewis from getting the ball, and play disciplined offense ourselves with smart shot selections. In the end, although Mt. Carmel came close a few times in the 2nd half, we won the game 62-52, with 32 of those points coming on free throws, particularly impressive in such a pressure-packed atmosphere. This was Fenwick’s first Catholic League Senior Basketball title since 1950 – a truly amazing and historic feat.

Needless to say, euphoria reigned and the team headed back to Fenwick after the game. We probably arrived at the school near midnight as March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day, began. Our bus was greeted in the school parking lot by an epic mob of our fellow students with the festivities continuing in the gym, where so much of our preparation had happened, including lots of ‘blood and sweat’ being spent. Coach Shay introduced each player and student manager on the team, briefly mentioning the person’s contributions, to wild cheering. This was truly a special night to celebrate the coveted Championship and the team effort behind it – players, coaches, students, staff and alumni. One Fenwick!

Back in 1966, the Catholic League Champ played the Pubic League Champ for the City Championship. It was a big deal. As Catholic League champs we would play the Marshall Commandos and their fabulous All-State forward Richard Bradshaw, who had completed an undefeated Public League season before being upset in the State Super-Sectional game by New Trier. Marshall, with its rich basketball history, was pointing to a victory over Fenwick for ‘redemption.’ The game was played on March 27th at the International Amphitheater with TV coverage again by WFLD. Our team came out ready to play, dominating the first half, but leading only 28-27 at halftime. Marshall surged in the second half and won the game 62-56 for the City Championship. One positive that came out of this loss was that two of the Fenwick players that day, sophomores Martinkus and Fittin, would gain invaluable experience from it and just two years later would lead a 25-4 Fenwick team, still coached by Bill Shay, to another Catholic League Championship and then go on to beat the Public League Champ Crane Tech 56-48 for the City Championship!

The old gym will come alive again on January 17, 2020.

This season and experience in 1966 taught us much. We certainly learned a great deal academically in the classroom from our Dominican and lay teachers, but to be part of this championship team taught me ‘even more,’ which I carried forward throughout my life and professional career. These early lessons from that season’s experience, which I have in fact used and am sill adding to many years later, might be summarized for me (in no particular order after the first one listed) as follows:

  • Win or lose, striving for excellence elevates the team and the individuals.
  • Most success comes from a team effort, being ‘One,’ not just from one ‘star’.
  • One never knows where the final ‘missing piece’ of a winning team will come from; often the person is ‘on the outside’ and ‘not seen’ at first.
  • Sometimes it takes time for a great team to gel (we started 3-7 in 1966).
  • Smart, intelligent coaching, including being creative and trying new approaches when necessary are absolutely essential to winning, when playing ‘dynamic games’.
  • A team made up of players with a winning attitude, who really want to win, are at a competitive advantage to an ‘all-star’ team (with ‘all star’ resumes) that just show up.
  • Playing hard and with focus at all times is essential to winning.
  • The pain of losing is not ‘the end of the world’ – ‘pain’ can motivate and teach a team, which wants to be great, where and how to get better.
  • The little things, practiced over and over, count (like making 20 pressure-packed free throws in the St. Rita game and 32 free throws in the Mt. Carmel game).
  • Positive passion and emotion are really helpful to give a person or a team that extra push when their energy level is running low (Bill Shay was a ‘positive’ coach and our Fenwick student body during the 1966 playoffs was very loud and very positive).
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Friars Basketball Legends to Have Jerseys Retired

Three women’s basketball superstars from Fenwick – Erin Lawless, Devereaux Peters and Tricia Liston — soon will have their numbers hanging from the rafters in the Catholic school’s gym.

Compiled by Mark Vruno

All_Three

Tricia Liston (from left), Devereaux Peters and Erin Lawless back in their Fenwick days.

In the illustrious, nearly 90-year history of Fenwick High School, only two retired jerseys have been displayed atop the Fieldhouse Gymnasium: those of Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lattner ’50 (football) and former NBA player Corey Maggette ’98 (boys’ basketball). But that number is about to more than double in a pregame ceremony (2:30 p.m.) on January 13th, when the jersey numbers of three alumnae will be added: Erin Lawless #34Tricia Liston #32 and Devereaux Peters #14.

“Lattner and Maggette: That’s some elite athletic company,” observes Dave Power, Head Girls’ Varsity Basketball Coach who mentored all three of the honorees when they played for his Friars. “Each of these women is so well deserving of this recognition from our school,” adds Coach Power, now in his 41st year of coaching (first at Proviso West, then at Immaculate Heart of Mary in Westchester).

Power is one of only three 900 (935 now and counting) game-winning basketball coaches in Illinois history, and teams on which the trio of Lawless, Peters and Liston played contributed to nearly 43% of that win total. Keep in mind that Fenwick was an all-boys institution for its first 63 years; it went coed in 1992 – the year Power came to Fenwick. Here, in chronological order, is who these players are, what they did at Fenwick, and what they’ve done since moving on from Oak Park:

#34 Shoots, She Scores!

ErinLawless_at_Purdue

Lawless played her powerball for the Boilermakers.

Erin Lawless ’03 is no relation to legendary Fenwick Coach Tony Lawless, but the 6’2” Berwyn native set her own reputation as a center on the hardwood. Post-Fenwick, Lawless played in the Big Ten at women’s basketball powerhouse Purdue University. She also played professionally, briefly for the WNBA’s Indiana Fever and then in Europe, where she enjoyed an eight-year career.

As a Friar Lawless won a state championship* (AA) as a sophomore and twice earned first-team All-State honors (as a junior and senior). Other highlights:

  • scored more than 2,000 career points in high school
  • averaged 21.6 points per game as a senior
  • as a junior, averaged 21.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4 blocked shots and 3.7 assists (the Friars went 30-4)
  • scored a school-record 51 points vs. St. Ignatius
  • overall record: 125-12

Lawless was the Chicago Sun-Times Player of the Year in ’03 and a McDonald’s and Nike/WBCA All-American. She was first runner-up for the Chicago Tribune’s Ms. Basketball in Illinois. (Naperville Central junior Candace Parker won her second Ms. Basketball title that year, and would win her third as a senior in 2004. In the ’03 state title game, the Friars lost to Parker’s Redhawks by four points in overtime.) Lawless was named second-team Parade All-American and third-team USA Today All-American.

Such accolades are even more impressive for the tall, former seventh grader — Lawless was 5’11” at age 12 — who started playing hoops on doctor’s orders at Lincoln Middle School (Berwyn). Two years earlier, “I was diagnosed with a rare blood disease called ITP,” she was quoted in a Purdue University publication as a college freshman in 2003. ITP is short for idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, an autoimmune disease that causes a low platelet count in the blood. (Sonya Lawless, Erin’s mother, also suffers from the condition.) “My hematologist told me that if I picked up a basketball, it actually builds up my immune system and would help keep me active and keep me healthy,” Lawless said.

Once she caught the basketball bug, Erin’s late Uncle Bud helped her to hone her skills. Fast forward three years, to when Lawless cracked the starting varsity line-up as a Fenwick freshman in 1999-2000. The rest, as they say, is history. The ITP has gone into remission, and basketball probably played a large role in helping to build up her immune system and get the platelet count to a safe level.

Today, Lawless is in her second year of coaching at La Plata High School in Maryland, where she lives with her husband and two-year-old daughter. She also teaches Chemistry and AP Environmental Science. “The team I coach has not had a successful track record, and I am working on changing that for the program,” she reports. The 32-year-old adds, “While I have ‘retired’ from basketball, I continue to get offers to play — and if the opportunity presents itself, I may just go back!”

#14 Perseveres through Adversity

Continue reading “Friars Basketball Legends to Have Jerseys Retired”

Faith, Family and Fenwick

These three F’s have set the foundation for young Jamal Nixon ’17, helping him to find his way — from Chicago and Plainfield, IL, to Oak Park and Mankato, MN, and beyond.

Jamal_Nixon_MSU_take2

An injury can’t hold back a leader of Friars. Facing “minor” knee surgery, Jamal says he will be ready to hoop again for the Minnesota State Mavs in the New Year.

By Mark Vruno

Jamal Nixon ’17 is a winner: off the basketball court as well as on it. His father, outplacement services professional William Nixon, credits Friars’ Head Basketball Coach Rick Malnati with nurturing Jamal’s competitive edge, which transfers from sports to school. “Teachers have the ability to tap into this and allow kids to achieve at their highest levels,” Mr. Nixon believes. “At Fenwick, they are willing to develop you as a student.”

William watched pridefully as his son developed and flourished. Jamal’s natural leadership abilities were enhanced in the classroom and in the gymnasium. William and his wife, Loretta (Moore) Nixon, employ basketball as a platform to tell a Friar’s story that is much bigger than athletics. Jamal and his family came into Fenwick with an open mind but didn’t really know anything about the “Catholic thing” and the school’s culture, says his mother, who is Manager of IT Audit and Advisory Services at Health Care Service Corp.

Loretta and William were teenage sweethearts at Westinghouse High School in Chicago. When the curious parents inquired about Fenwick, they began hearing words such as, “legacy,” “tradition” and “multi-generational families.” They noticed how many alumni come back to teach at the private school. “We found all of that very impressive,” Loretta admits, including the relationship-building and connection aspects of “Friar Nation” and all its devoted alumni. “Fenwick offers so much in terms of mentoring, community and the alumni network,” praises her husband.

The parents wondered how structured or strict the Fenwick environment was – academically and behaviorally. They have very high expectations of their sons, and they wanted to ensure that their expectations for Jamal matched the school’s.

“I was pushed and challenged by my teachers in the classrooms of Fenwick,” Jamal says now, in his first semester at Minnesota State University, Mankato. “Mike [Smith, a teammate and friend] warned me about the challenging academics, but I wasn’t prepared as a freshman.”

Looking back on the experience, Jamal believes that success in school also has helped to build his self-confidence. His mom concurs: “There is an even playing field with kids coming in [to Fenwick],” she reports with hindsight. “You have to have an open mind and embrace the culture. Fenwick is more than willing to help you succeed.”

Christian values also are very important to the Nixons, whose religious roots are planted firmly in the Baptist tradition. The spiritual aspects of Fenwick and the core Dominican values were strong selling points, they say. “My family is Christian, but I had never studied Theology before [coming to Fenwick],” Jamal notes. Adds his mother, “Community service is huge at Fenwick, and Jamal learned to give back.”

“Fenwick is the place we knew we wanted Jamal to be,” she asserts. And the Nixons were willing to sacrifice to make sure he could come. “I was okay with borrowing from my 401 (k) for Jamal to get the education he deserves,” explains Loretta, “but we still needed some help financially. It all has been worth the price.”

William notes that he and his wife are thoroughly grateful to the benefactors who make this high level of education possible for kids. “The assistance we received was very much appreciated,” he says, then adds quickly: “But Fenwick also benefited by having a great kid in Jamal as part of the community!”

Historic Hoops

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Forever Friars: Fenwick Legend and Coach Tony Lawless Was Born 110 Years Ago

This year would have marked the 110th birthday of the late Coach Lawless, who for nearly half a century worked for the students of Fenwick and the school since its inception in 1929.

By Mark Vruno

Happy Birthday to Coach Lawless. This year marks the 110th anniversary of the birth of Fenwick legend Tony Lawless. At least we think so. No one still living is certain when Anthony R. Lawless was born. His nephew, Mike, who like his revered uncle has spent a lifetime as an educator and coach — in the family’s hometown Peoria (IL) High School — says the elder Lawless often fibbed about his age to prospective employers when he was young. “Uncle Tony wanted jobs but didn’t want them knowing how young he was. So we were never exactly sure how old he was,” Mike Lawless notes with a laugh.

What we do know is this: Tony Lawless graduated from Spalding Institute in Peoria in 1924. He played on the Fighting Irish’s national Catholic high school championship basketball team that year, before moving to Chicago to attend college at Loyola University. He later was inducted into Loyola’s Hall of Fame for both basketball and football.

Continue reading “Forever Friars: Fenwick Legend and Coach Tony Lawless Was Born 110 Years Ago”

CCL Hall of Fame to Induct 4 Former Friars

tedesco_dominic

A cardiothoracic surgeon in California, Dominic Tedesco ’74 was an two-way, “ironman” football player at Fenwick who went on to play (and study) at the University of Michigan.

 

Congratulations to former Fenwick football standout Dominic Tedesco ’74, who on May 4 will be inducted into the Chicago Catholic League Hall of Fame. Tedesco was a two-way starter at Fenwick, playing tight end on offense and strong safety/ linebacker on defense. His fourth-quarter and overtime heroics — a touchdown tying catch at the end of regulation and game-ending interception in overtime — culminated in a Friars’ victory over the Weber Red Horde. His senior season (1973) saw Fenwick defeat two different teams that each ranked #1 in the state. Dominic was named to the Catholic League All-Conference Team on offense and the All-State Team on defense. He received the Outstanding Student-Athlete Award from the Holy Cross Club of Chicago and was named to the New World All-America Team.

Tedesco went on to play at the University of Michigan while studying pre-med. He played on three Big Ten Championship teams, an Orange Bowl and Rose Bowls his junior and senior years. He was recognized by Sports Illustrated as one of the stars of the 1977 Rose Bowl game. He received All-Big Ten Academic Team honors in 1976 and 1977 and was named to the All-Big Ten Team in 1977. He was the first recipient of the Ernest T. Siglar Award presented annually to the outstanding University of Michigan scholar athlete.

Dominic attended Loyola Stritch School of Medicine and later did his general and cardiothoracic surgery residencies at Rush Presbyterian St. Lukes Medical Center. He has been practicing cardiothoracic surgery in Southern California for 27 years and has performed more than 5,000 heart surgeries. Tedesco was invested as a Knight in the Order of Malta and serves on the medical team for the Order’s annual pilgrimage to Lourdes, France.

“I thank my mother, Delores, for being my biggest fan and supporter,” says the soon-to-be Hall of Famer, who lives in Southern California with his wife, Carolyn, “who gave me my three greatest treasures in life: Nicholas, Quentin and Carina.”

Joining Tedesco in the CCL HOF are three other 2017 inductees with Fenwick connections:

  • Don Sebestyen, dean of students and head varsity football coach from 1981-86.
  • Will Rey, Friars’ head varsity basketball coach from 1982-85, who also coached at Gordon Tech (now DePaul Prep) and is still coaching at the collegiate level.
  • Ed Formanski, who served as a counselor for years at Fenwick before moving to Hinsdale Central High School.