Fremd is undefeated. Bolingbrook was without a key player in its lone loss. Curie still has four starters from last year's state championship team. Evanston and Simeon are ranked No. 1 and 2 in the Tribune Top 20.
The pool of potential champions among the state's biggest schools is deeper than it's been in years as the Class 4A and 3A playoffs tip off this week with regional tournaments throughout Illinois.
While Morgan Park, Fenwick and perhaps Springfield Lanphier appear to be the class of Class 3A, the 4A tournament appears to be wide open.
Here's a four-question guide to the 4A playoffs:
Toughest road to Peoria? Among the 12-15 teams with a realistic chance of reaching the 4A Final Four, it's Simeon. The city champion Wolverines (24-3) might have to face a talented, battle-tested Marian Catholic team in the South Suburbs just to advance out of the Eisenhower Regional and into the Thornwood Sectional.
If they get there, they'll likely be greeted by T.F. North (23-3) or Marist (25-3) in the semifinals. Potential sectional final opponents include arguably the most dynamic player in the state, Alonzo Verge of Thornton (20-5), Brother Rice (23-5) and Bloom (20-6).(Mike Helfgot)
All five of those teams won conference championships, and none are as dangerous in the eyes of Associated Press voters as the team favored to meet Simeon in the at Illinois State Supersectional, AP No. 1-ranked Edwardsville.
For all its success in the last decade-plus, Simeon has struggled to get downstate from the south supersectional, and Edwardsville may well be the best team in the state behind major stock-riser Mark Smith and three-sport star AJ Epenesa, the No. 1-ranked football recruit in the state and No. 2-ranked defensive end in the nation according to 247Sports' composite rankings.
Will Evanston justify its No. 1 ranking? The Wildkits did beat Simeon, after all, though not even Evanston (24-3) would deny it took the game more seriously last weekend with Simeon did set to play Morgan Park for the city championship the next day.
Evanston has not gone downstate since finishing third in 4A in 2008, the first year the tournament was expanded to four classes. Evanston has by far the best resume in the Waukegan Sectional, though Notre Dame (23-5) has been sneaky-good of late and the Stevenson (21-5) tandem of Indiana recruit Justin Smith and Willie Herenton can do a lot of damage, as Morgan Park can attest. If the Wildkits can navigate the sectional, they figure to encounter an equally talented team in the Chicago State Supersectional — No. 6 Curie (23-3) or No. 7 Young (20-7).
Can Fremd run the table? History highly doubts it for a couple of reasons. The last undefeated champion in any class was Seneca in 2006, and that was in Class A. The last large school to do it was King in 1993.
The lack of a high-major Division I player does not bode well for the Vikings either. The last several 4A champions have featured at least one major-conference recruit, and most featured multiple future Division I players.
Fremd, incidentally, was the last 4A team to enter the postseason without a loss. That 2013-14 Fremd team lost to Jalen Brunson and Stevenson in a sectional final. There's nobody like Brunson in the Robert Morris Sectional, but No. 5 Fremd (26-0) will likely have to contend with either Conant (24-4) or Prospect (22-5) again. Fremd beat Prospect 57-55 in the Mid-Suburban League championship game Wednesday night and needed a miracle four-point play by Kyle Sliwa to slip past Conant 42-41 in the second of their two victories over the Cougars.
What about Wheaton Warrenville South? If not for Fremd, the Tigers would be the surprise story of the regular season, going 27-1 and entering the postseason on a 14-game winning streak. If not for Fremd and Wheaton South, Geneva's 26-game winning streak before finally losing in the penultimate weekend would be the surprise story of the regular season.
Neither can considered the clear favorite in the Hinsdale Central Sectional, and not simply because of the presence of the other. Benet has been the surprise story of two of the past three postseasons, reaching the Class 4A championship game in 2014 and '16. These Redwings (22-6) may not be quite as talented as those teams, but they feature two key pieces from the team that upset Simeon in last season's state semifinals, they reached the finals of the loaded Pontiac Holiday Tournament, and they enter the playoffs on an eight-game winning streak.
Whoever emerges from Hinsdale Central should face a tall task at the Northern Illinois Supersectional. The top two seeds in the Lincoln-Way East Sectional, Bolingbrook and Joliet West, feature multiple future Division I players.
Mike Helfgot is a freelance reporter for the Chicago Tribune.
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