There were Fremd boys basketball teams that compiled gaudier records.
There were Vikings teams with players who received more acclaim.
But no team in Fremd history can match what this one accomplished 20 years ago. And no one in the Mid-Suburban League had played such an integral part in March Madness before 1993.
After a series of finishes that ended just short of reaching the Elite Eight, a group of believers made Champaign dreams even wilder than imagined come true with a fourth-place finish in Class AA. And they narrowly missed a chance to play one of the biggest, baddest and best teams in state history in King for the championship at Assembly Hall.
“It was a thrill of a lifetime, to say the least,” said Mo Tharp of the crowning achievement in a career where he spent 27 of his 31 years as a head coach at Fremd.
Especially since it was by a team that didn’t even win its MSL division. A close-knit group with players whose post-high school basketball consisted primarily of pickup, intramural or rec league games.
“That basketball experience was truly something special,” said center and quarterfinal hero Keith Lozowski, who had a decorated three-sport career at Fremd and started on Northwestern’s Rose Bowl football team in 1996.
“As a high school kid, playing basketball was all you wanted to do,” said Matt Panzino, the junior point guard of a team that finished 24-8. “Looking back, it was a pretty cool thing to be able to experience as a player.”
Fremd was not very prominent in basketball circles before Tharp arrived in 1976. He set out to change that after four successful seasons at his alma mater, Zion-Benton.
“He was from the Bobby Knight school of coaching and I think that was evident in how we played,” said Dan Laya, a starting guard on the 1993 team. “Hard work and selflessness were the main themes.”
It was a formula that ultimately led the Vikings to a supersectional for the first time in 1986. They suffered a 30-point knockout by future Illinois “Flying Illini” and NBA standout Kendall Gill and Rich Central.
Two years later, with a group of some of the best athletes in school history — Todd Leslie (Northwestern basketball), Jason Joseph (Loyola basketball), current Palatine mayor Jim Schwantz (NFL linebacker) and George Poorman (Notre Dame football) — the Vikings finished the regular season 23-1 and ranked 11th in The Associated Press state poll. Their season ended with a heartbreaking 4-point overtime loss in the supersectional to East Aurora and Thomas Wyatt.
A year later, Leslie was back but so were Wyatt and the Tomcats to derail Fremd one game short of the Elite Eight once again. But a group of young kids were watching closely and working toward following in their footsteps.
“What was really cool about the whole thing was we played together in grade school basketball, junior high and on feeder teams,” said starting forward Steve McGrath. “We came together all the way along the line. And watching Leslie and those guys play, the goal in my mind was to get to the Sweet 16 game.”
They did in 1992 as McGrath scored 13 points, Laya had 7 points and Lozowski, Mike Mangan, Panzino and Andre Anthony all played at NIU against East Aurora. But it was another sour ending with a 62-50 defeat.
“Once we were there junior year and lost, it left a bad taste our mouths and it was further motivation to get past that point,” McGrath said. “It wasn’t a one- or two-year process. It went all the way back to grade school with all the guys.”
Laya said the 1992 experience — particularly going up every day against Bill Tharp, Mike Patch, Greg Swedo and Mike Moffett — set the tone for the next year.
“There were often times blood was on the court and we all wanted to prove that we should be in the starting lineup,” Laya said. “Both classes had a lot of pride and we really wanted to show each other that our class was better. By the end of our junior year we were beating them more than they were beating us and that’s when we knew how good we could be the following year.”
However, for most of the 1992-93 season, they weren’t even the top team in their own town. Cross-town rival Palatine had one of its best teams and beat Fremd twice en route to the MSL North title. Conant also had the components to produce one of the most electrifying teams in MSL history and an Elite Eight trip in 1994.
Fremd was balanced and solid — especially up front with Lozowski and Mangan, who also played football at Eastern Illinois and rugby after college. Tharp recalled a big key was McGrath returning to full strength late in the season after playing with mono, which few people knew about.
“It was a bunch of good kids who liked each other and got along very well,” said Tharp, who retired from Fremd in 2002. “There were no types of discipline problems and they loved playing.”
They would get another shot at Palatine, and in a memorable sectional semifinal, Fremd won in double overtime. A win over Lake Park in the sectional final set up a trip to a familiar roadblock — Northern Illinois’ Chick Evans Field House in DeKalb — for a supersectional game that produced an incredible comeback and an unexpected hero.
For a little more than a half, it looked as if it would be another bitter Sweet 16 trip for Fremd. Naperville Central went to intermission with a 22-point lead and future Bradley star and NBA veteran Anthony Parker was well on his way to a 28-point night.
“He just lit me up in the first half,” McGrath said.
Tharp also lit into his team at halftime but made it clear the game wasn’t over.
“I can’t tell you the things I said to them,” Tharp said with a laugh. “Most of it didn’t have to do with basketball. But we got them together before we went out for the beginning of the third quarter and I said, ‘OK, guys, here’s the deal. If we get within 10 at the end of the third quarter, I think we can still win.’”
First the deficit grew to 25 points. Then junior reserve Chris Loughlin stepped into the spotlight.
“It was the same role I had through much of the season,” Loughlin said. “Shoot a few 3s and see what happens.”
What happened was five of them found the mark in nine attempts and Loughlin scored 24 of his 26 points in the second half.
“It was definitely a great memory for me,” Loughlin said, “but it was all kind of a blur because it happened so fast.”
In less than 16 minutes, a staggering 32-point turnaround was complete as Fremd won 66-59 to finally break through and reach the Elite Eight.
“Everything we did was right, and Loughlin caught fire and was scoring from every place,” Tharp said.
“I’ve never been involved in a wilder game and I’ve never witnessed a better individual effort in a half of basketball than Chris’ that day,” Laya said.
“That was a pretty unique game to be a part of, to be down as big as we were,” Panzino said. “Against a guy who’s been in the NBA and could score any time he wanted to. That’s obviously one of the things that sticks out.
“One of the real cool moments I reflect back to was my dad (Bob) being there and coming down on the court and the good times with him.”
A weekend with even better ones was still ahead.
As one would imagine, the buzz around the school was pretty high as the Vikings prepared to head downstate. Laya recalled being swarmed by younger autograph-seekers in awe of what they had accomplished.
But Assembly Hall also left many players and teams awestruck during the years it hosted the state tourneys from 1963 to 1995. The gigantic mushroom-shaped ceiling created an expansive environment that had a way of playing tricks on some of the state’s sharpest shooters.
“I remember the depth perception at Assembly Hall was a pretty drastic difference from where we played, even at NIU,” McGrath said. “Going from high school gyms to that was an adjustment.”
Laya did have a slight edge — and some extra motivation — since he took part in the 3-point contest a year earlier but didn’t advance to the finals. The problem for Fremd was its quarterfinal opponent, Bradley-Bourbonnais, had played in Champaign a year earlier and returned with a 28-2 record.
Laya’s experience helped as he hit three 3s and Fremd showed no jitters as it took an 8-point halftime lead. Bradley answered to regain the lead late, but Loughlin’s 2 free throws tied it with 18.8 seconds left and Laya and Panzino forced a turnover with 7.2 seconds to go.
That set up an unplanned collaboration between Laya and Lozowski. Laya’s 3 for the win bounced off the front rim but Lozowski was there for a buzzer-beating tip-in for a 50-48 victory.
It made Laya feel better since he was battling a cold and joked that his constant sneezing had state-tourney roommate Lozowski “wanting to kick my butt.” It was also gratifying since Laya helped Lozowski become interested in basketball in junior high.
The win epitomized Fremd’s balance as Laya scored 12 points, Panzino had 9, Mangan and McGrath scored 8, Lozowski had 7 and 10 rebounds and Loughlin scored 6 points.
For Lozowski, it was another memorable moment in a senior year where he led the football team to an unbeaten regular season and won state titles in the shot put and discus. But basketball would hardly be considered an “off-season” for Lozowski.
“It was always kind of a cool and exciting experience for me to get back in the gym and rekindle those relationships,” Lozowski said. “I really loved basketball. If I was a little taller with the same skills or more skilled with the same height, I would have considered going to a D-II school. I wanted to continue to play basketball.”
Now, he and his teammates were guaranteed to play two more games on Saturday. A Loughlin layup with 40 seconds left gave Fremd a 1-point lead with 40 seconds left in its semifinal against Rockford Guilford, another first-time Elite Eight qualifier.
But Guilford converted a 3-point play 14 seconds later and Fremd missed two potential tying shots in the final seconds of a 60-58 loss. Mangan had 23 points and McGrath added 16, but it had to settle for playing for third place instead of meeting King and 7-footers Rashard Griffith and Thomas Hamilton in the championship game.
“I’ll always regret that we didn’t get to play King for the state title,” Lozowski said of the Chicago Public League powerhouse that stormed past Guilford 79-42 for the title behind a 32-2 fourth quarter.
A 42-36 loss in the third-place game to Danville and 6-11 future NBA player Keon Clark didn’t diminish what Fremd accomplished that weekend.
“We came so close with Guilford and it hurt at that time,” Loughlin said. “But to go down and experience it was just a real nice ending to everything.”
When Fremd returned from Champaign the team received a parade and trophy celebration at the school.
“It was fun to be made a big deal of when we got back in town,” McGrath said.
Panzino, who still lives in Palatine with his family, joked about a flashback a couple of years ago when Comcast’s ‘High School Lites’ show ran a clip of the victory over Bradley in the state quarterfinals.
“They were like, ‘That was you?’” Panzino said with a laugh about his two sons.
Lozowski played a big part in a huge national sports story with the resurrection of Northwestern’s football program in the mid-1990s and went to training camp with the New York Jets. But the 1993 Fremd basketball team still holds a special place in his heart.
“It was awesome,” said Lozowski, who lives in Jacksonville, Fla., with his family and works in the insurance business. “For me personally, that experience ranks right up there with the opportunity to go to the Rose Bowl.
“I think of the memories of being on the bus with the guys and having those close relationships. We epitomized the word team. Everybody knew their role and accepted that. There weren’t any ‘me’ guys and we were focused on what we needed to do to win a basketball game.”
That’s why Tharp isn’t surprised to see the success this group is still enjoying personally and professionally. Loughlin and Laya are still living in the Chicago area, McGrath is in Atlanta and Mangan is working and now coaching rugby at Regis University in Colorado.
“It was really just a fun group to be around and coach,” said Tharp, who is enjoying retirement with his wife near Hilton Head Island in South Carolina and in Orlando. “They were good students as well as good athletes and that’s another thing that’s great about them. They were kids you’d want for your sons.”
Fremd’s trip to Champaign also started a memorable 13-year stretch for MSL boys basketball. Schaumburg won it all in 2001, took fourth in 1999 and made the Elite Eight in 2006. Hoffman Estates went in 1996 and 2004 and Conant and Hersey made it in 1994 and 1995 respectively.
Only four MSL teams reached the Elite Eight before 1993 — Hersey in 1974 and 1985, Arlington in 1982 and Rolling Meadows in 1990. No one from the league has made it since 2006.
“I don’t think any of us thought about being a groundbreaking team for the MSL until it was all over,” Laya said. “We wanted to make it downstate because we just missed it the previous year. And we wanted to make it further than the Todd Leslie team because they were our heroes growing up.
“(Current) Coach (Bob) Widlowski was in his first year with Fremd the year we went downstate, so he knows the feeling of accomplishing the feat and the hard work and preparation necessary to get there, and that’s why I’m confident that Fremd will one day return to the state finals.”
Which would once again rekindle memories of the Fremd team which showed it was possible back in 1993.
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