When the Oak Lawn Community High School boys basketball team won the South Suburban Conference Red title last year, it was the first time the program had accomplished that feat since 1983. The 2021-22 team displayed defense, depth, and toughness.
The road to a possible dream of repeating as conference champs this year was a challenging one. They faced injuries, improved challengers from within the conference, and the pressure of doing it all over again. However, the Spartans rose to the occasion, and Thursday night when they convincingly beat Reavis 72-42 on the road in Burbank, they had indeed fulfilled their destiny by guaranteeing at least a share of a second-consecutive conference crown. With Evergreen Park’s loss to Lemont the following night, the Spartans now have sole possession of the title. The team added an exclamation point by beating Richards on Tuesday to officially cut down the nets.
“I’m proud of this group,” head coach Jason Rhodes said of his team, who is now 18-8 overall and 8-3 in conference play. “They’ve battled all year long, been through some stuff, and our entire team has really stepped up and grown along the way. I’m very happy for them.”
In the big picture, this long road to clinching consecutive conference titles began when Rhodes took over the program in 2011, and it really started to take shape in 2017 when Adem Osmani emerged as a budding star and leader. And though they fell a little short of earning the hardware, an identity was forged. That team brought a defensive toughness and resolute mindset the Spartans had not seen in quite some time. It continued with younger brother Sami Osmani and classmates Trey Ward and David Reyes as their intensity skyrocketed to new heights. No matter the score, teammates bought into the Spartan way of all-out effort.
“The classes of 2018 and 2020 really built our program culture, and I’m forever indebted to them for how they bought in to what we were trying to do here,” Rhodes said. “It didn’t hurt that they were both tough and talented, either.”
The groundwork was laid for what this program has become today. Now, that mental toughness is a staple of Spartan basketball, and the accolades are accumulating. Current Spartans like Ayham Salah, Corey Lee, Robert Wagner, Eduardo Chiquito, Henry Martinez, sophomore Dontè Montgomery, freshman Jack Dempsey and Erhan Osmani live up to that gold standard. They are equipped to handle the pressure of the big moments. Now, they are back-to-back conference champs and will go down in history as the first to ever do it at Oak Lawn.
It wasn’t easy.
Senior transfer Xavier Sulaiman entered the program from Marist and immediately lit up the scoreboard to the tune of 20 points a game. Add that to Salah’s and Lee’s production at both ends of the floor, and the Spartans were off and rolling. They won the Spartan-Ram Classic Thanksgiving tournament to start the season and even overcame a double-digit halftime deficit in the championship game to do so. They entered conference play with soaring expectations.
The sky was the limit, but Sulaiman suffered an injury in a difficult loss on the road at Evergreen Park early in the conference campaign, and a repeat conference crown appeared to be in jeopardy. However, the Spartans simply buckled down and did what they had to do. “Following the loss to EP, we had what I thought was a productive conversation with our team leaders in terms of how we needed to play consistently and the discipline necessary to do so,” Rhodes said. “Credit to them for staying the course and sticking to our principles through the inevitable valleys of our season.” It was impressive to see the team gel even after such adversity. They started to get more scoring from Wagner and Chiquito, and Martinez vastly improved in the paint. Dempsey and Montgomery burst on the scene as perimeter scoring threats as well. Oak Lawn continued to win, and as they say, the rest is history.
“What people don’t see behind the scenes is the developmental and strength and conditioning work Colin Altenburg and Rashad Johnson do with the guys,” Rhodes said. “They are in their ears a lot, teaching and encouraging our players to do more and be more, and you can see that as the kids get better throughout the year. They are a huge part of our success.” Altenburg (’11) and Johnson (’17) are former Spartan basketball standouts assisting the program and helping the program’s mission of continuous improvement.
The Spartans can boast that they are back-to-back championships now. But even more importantly, Rhodes and the program itself have developed a winning culture that bleeds green and white. Now, the postseason awaits…