We Are Proud of Our 2022 Graduates

Sunday, May 8 was a festive, joyous day to remember for Leo High School’s graduating class of 2022, as well as their mothers as Leo upheld a longstanding tradition of graduating on Mother’s Day before a full house at St. Margaret of Scotland Church.

It was an especially festive and joyous day for two standout members of the class, whose many contributions over four years were acknowledged and honored.

In his Valedictorian address, Cameron Cleveland cited the obstacles he and his classmates overcame to reach graduation in the midst of a COVID pandemic that affected every aspect of their high school careers. Classroom success, basketball triumphs, community-boosting service projects … all seemed even more meaningful, having been achieved against a COVID backdrop that disrupted so many lives in so many ways.

Ranked No. 1 in his class for each of his four years at Leo, Cleveland earned the Valedictorian designation for finishing with the highest GPA within the Class of 2022. Befitting the two-year captain of Leo’s Catholic League championship basketball team, he also received the William J. Koloseike Gold Medal for Athletics, as well as the Thomas and Mary Owens Gold Medal for Excellence in Mathematics and the Andrew J. McKenna Gold Medal for Leadership Initiatives.

Cleveland is headed for Morehouse College in Atlanta on an academic scholarship.

Oliver Brown Jr. —known as PJ around Leo—was the Class of 2022 Salutatorian by a razor-thin margin. He echoed Cleveland in noting that COVID-induced challenges brought his classmates closer and gave them a greater appreciation of high school experiences they might otherwise have taken for granted or even missed altogether.

Brown, who as “PJ the Deejay” was the MC for numerous Leo events over his four years, also received the Stafford L. Hood Gold Medal for Excellence in English and the Frank W. Considine Gold Medal for Social Justice. He is headed for Southern University in Baton Rouge, La,., on scholarship for baseball and academics.

Mother’s Day set a delightful tone for the ceremony. In one highlight, each graduate presented his mom with a framed copy of a Mother’s Day poem he had written to complete his Senior English project for Mr. Titus Redmond’s class.The world-renowned Leo Choir’s four-song set featured stirring solos by senior Robert Smith (“It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye”) and sophomore Theauntae Jones (“See You Again”), as well as a lively rendition of “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” that brought the crowd to its feet to join in.

And in a speech that encapsulated the last four years, Principal Shaka Rawls reminded the graduates that the resolve they displayed in committing to their education as COVID upended their lives would serve them well as they move forward in life … as true Leo Men.

The complete list of honorees from the Class of 2022:

The William J. Koloseike Gold Medal for Athletics: Cameron Cleveland

The Bishop John R. Gorman Gold Medal for Religion: James E’Akels

The Michael L. Thompson Gold Medal for Music: Jacori Elam

The Donald F. Flynn Gold Medal for History: David Gross

The Dr. James J. Ahern Gold Medal for Science: Wellington Porter

The Thomas & Mary Owens Gold Medal for Mathematics: Cameron Cleveland

The Dr. Stafford L. Hood Gold Medal for English: Oliver Brown Jr.

The Brother James Glos Gold Medal for Foeign Language: Jakolbi Wilson

The Frank W. Considine Gold Medal for Social Justice: Oliver Brown Jr.

The Andrew J. McKenna Gold Medal for Leadership: Cameron Cleveland

Spring Showcase Featuring the World Renowned Leo Choir on May 26th

Join us on Thursday, May 26 to enjoy the great Leo Choir. The show will be in the Leo Auditorium, and will start at 6:30. We hope to see you there.

Leo’s Annual Black History Pageant

Leo’s annual Black History Pageant, held in the school auditorium on Friday, Feb. 18, seemed even more high-energy than usual because of the involvement of so many Leo students. 

Mr. Kevin Steward, who teaches biology, supervises the National Honor Society and serves as student-activities coordinator, organized the two-hour program that featured “motivational speakers, cultural custodians and teachers of the people … who empower us to follow our dreams,” in the words of BeInvinceable Productions, which provided the entertainment. 

The World-Renowned Leo Choir took center stage as the opening act, but another dozen Leo students had roles, including sophomore Keith Smith (rap) and senior Jarrett Blake (spoken word), who performed original compositions pointing out that the Black man’s struggle in America is ongoing.

Readings by seniors William Anderson, P.J. Brown, Cameron Cleveland and Jakolbi Wilson; juniors Isaiah Knox, Christopher Robinson and Thomas Sims and sophomores Christian Brockett and Zion Cornell-Strickland paid tribute to the work of such celebrated Black writers as Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, while other passages acknowledged the contributions of Black inventors Charles R. Drew (the blood bank), Lewis Latimer (the incandescent-filtered light bulb) and Garrett Morgan (the red/yellow/green stoplight).

In the midst of a soul-stirring drum performance, Deshaun and Elizabeth Newman pointed out the differences in drums from the different regions of Africa, but no matter their origin, drums played a vital role in various aspects of African culture. They also noted that American slave owners denied their enslaved people access to drums lest they communicate with the enslaved people on neighboring plantations and create unrest over their living and working conditions.   

By popular demand, Vincent Gray and Brian Kizer were back with a high-decibel spoken-word performance that brought Leo students to their feet when it was performed in this venue several months ago.

Gray is a product of the Auburn Gresham community who said he would have attended Leo if his parents had been able to afford the tuition. Thus his knowledge comes mostly from the streets, and he used common-sense street vernacular to emphasize the importance of good decision-making.

“I don’t hear no because I live in yes … Are you doing what’s necessary or what’s comfortable? … How many of you have an I-phone? How many of you have I will? … My library card is more valuable than my driver’s license because my library card takes me places my driver’s license can’t … Eighty percent of success is showing up. Eight-five percent is showing up on time … You don’t have a problem, you have a choice. A problem is an opportunity to rise to the occasion.”

Kizer said he dealt with rejection issues as a youngster—he was born out of wedlock, and his father refused to acknowledge or accept him. He seemed  headed for the street life and a “career” as a drug dealer until a cousin intervened and reminded him of the wisdom of their grandmother: “You can do more than you’re doing. You can be more than you are. You can become the man you’re supposed to be.”

Kizer closed by emphasizing the importance of belief in one’s self. ”I am water to a well. Put me anywhere on God’s green earth and I will succeed.”

Finally, what would a Leo celebration be without some recognition for Principal Shaka Rawls? This time it came from the Cook County branch of the Illinois Principals Association, which recognized Mr. Rawls as a “bridge builder,” citing Leo’s various efforts to better the lives of its Auburn Gresham neighbors.

“My name is on this plaque, but the award is for Leo High School,” Mr. Rawls said. “All of us are involved in the work that’s being recognized here today. And we intend to keep it going.”

Coach Thompson: Chicago Catholic League Coach of the Year, and Jakeem Cole, CCL Player of the Year

The Leo Lions will be under the direction of the Chicago Catholic League Coach of the Year, and their backcourt will feature the CCL Player of the Year when they begin state tournament play against Harlan in the Class 2-A Regional at Chicago Christian High School on Wednesday, Feb.23. 

Jamal Thompson was chosen as the Lawless Award winner for Coach of the Year, and Jakeem Cole earned the Lawless for Player of the Year in voting by Catholic League coaches at their annual postseason meeting on Sunday, Feb. 20.

Thompson guided the Lions to a 21-4 overall record and a 13-1 CCL mark that gave Leo its first conference championship since 2010. Thompson, a 2000 Leo graduate, has won 20 or more games in three of his four seasons as the Lions’ coach, the lone exception being the 2021 spring campaign, when COVID restrictions cut the schedule to 13 games.

Cole, in his third year with the varsity and his second as a starter, averaged 16.4 points, 4.2 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 3.2 steals. The junior guard built his case by turning in some of his best games in Leo victories over his strongest POY competition: Mount Carmel’s Deandre Craig, Brother Rice’s Ahmad Henderson and St. Rita’s Morez Johnson.

“That’s great news,” Leo Principal Shaka Rawls said. “I’m proud of Coach Thompson, proud of Jakeem, proud of all the boys, not just for the season they’ve had, but for the way they represent Leo.”

All five Leo starters received postseason recognition. Senior Cameron Cleveland was voted to the second All-CCL team, while senior Austin Ford, Junior Tyler Smith and sophomore Christian Brockett were named Honorable Mention.

“It’s an honor, and I’m really happy for Ja, who deserves it for sure,” Thompson said. “But these really are team honors, recognition for the type of season we’ve had and the work we’ve put in. 

“And it’s not over yet. The Catholic League was only the first step. We intend to keep it going.”

Harlan earned the right to face the top-seeded Lions in the Regional semifinal by downing Hansberry 60-38 in a Saturday play-in game. The Falcons were 11-17 in the regular season and 5-4 in the Public League White South, good for a fifth-place finish.

Harlan averages 52 points a game and allows 56. Raequan Smith, a 6-foot-3 guard, is their leading scorer at 15.2 points per game, while 6-8 center Demari Harris averages 3.3 blocks as a defensive presence inside. One common opponent is Thornwood, which beat Harlan by 20 (70-50) and lost to Leo by 10 (56-46).

The Leo-Harlan game tips off at 6 p.m., followed by the other semifinal between Joliet Catholic and Julian at 7:30. Joliet Catholic was 11-13 in the regular season, outscoring its opponents 57-55 on average. But the Hilltoppers failed to win a game in the East Suburban Catholic Conference, finishing last at 0-9. They split two games with two common Leo opponents, beating Providence Catholic 49-46 and losing to Pontiac 67-59.

Some mediocre years have relegated Julian to the Public League’s Blue Division, but the Jaguars could be on their way back after going 16-5 overall and 9-1 in the Blue South. Defense is the Jaguars’ calling card; they allow just 36 points per game while scoring 50.

Wednesday’s semifinal winners will meet for the Regional title at Chicago Christian on Friday, Feb. 25 at 7 p.m. The winner will move on to the Julian Sectional against Regional champs from Carver, Dunbar and University High.

Leo has won two regional championships and one sectional title under Thompson. “We know what’s in front of us,” he said, “and we’ll be ready.”  

We Will Always Be Proud of Our Lions

By Dan McGrath

For the first quarter of their Joliet Supersectional matchup with Catholic League rival DePaul Prep on Monday, the Leo Lions might well have been auditioning for the NBA playoffs, never mind the Illinois state tournament.

Their constant-motion, quick-strike offense produced shot after makeable shot. Their press forced six turnovers. They led 22-7 and had the Rams back on their heels.

But DePaul Prep isn’t Harlan or U-High or any of the other four opponents Leo handled with 30-point dispatch in the first two rounds of postseason play. The Rams had come to play, to compete, and an early 15-point deficit was a minor irritation, not a fatal turn of the screw. 

They threw up a defensive blanket that smothered the Lions as thoroughly as they’d been smothered in the teams’ regular-season meeting back on Feb. 15. They pulled even late in the third quarter, seized a lead that grew to five points early in the fourth and wound up prevailing 50-43 in overtime after Leo failed to convert two opportunities in the final 10 seconds of regulation and managed just four points in the extra period.

Thus it’s DePaul Prep (26-5) headed for the IHSA Class 2-A semifinals at the University of Illinois this weekend, while Leo closes the books on a 25-5 season. It produced Catholic League, regional and sectional titles and memorable moments of blissful satisfaction, but it fell short of the ultimate prize for three reasons: The Lions couldn’t keep Jaylan McElroy (18 points) off the backboards, they couldn’t keep Peyton Kamin (13 points) off the free-throw line, and they managed just 21 points in 28 minutes after that electrifying 22-point first quarter. 

“This is not how we wanted it to end, obviously, but it doesn’t take anything away from the season we had,” Coach Jamal Thompson said after consoling and thanking every player individually in a locker room as somber as a cemetery. “They gave us everything they had. They left it on the floor every night. I could not have asked any more of them. I can’t put into words how proud I am.”

When Jerry Tarkanian coached them, UNLV’s Runnin’ Rebels played what was known as the “amoeba defense”—you might get past one man, but another would immediately materialize to block your path to the basket and/or challenge your shot.

Absent a tricky nickname, DePaul’s defense employs similar tactics with similar results. The shots the Lions normally take and make with aplomb simply weren’t there: Leo shot 14-for-54 (26 percent) during a long, tough night, and that includes an 8-for-14 first quarter. From the second quarter on the Lions were an astonishing 6-for-40, or 15 percent. It surely wasn’t for lack of effort, but they scored 81 points total in their two DePaul losses after averaging 65 against everybody else.  

“Numbers don’t mean a thing at this point,” Thompson said. “It just hurts.”

It might hurt a little less to look ahead—Catholic League Player of the Year Jakeem Cole returns, along with standout guards Tyler Smith and Christian Brockett. Three useful reserves are back as well, and the sophomore team’s top scorer/rebounder will join the varsity roster next season.

But it’s best not to look ahead before acknowledging the contributions of departing seniors Cameron Cleveland, Austin Ford and Jamari Allen.

Cleveland, still a bit gimpy on a sprained knee, closed out his Leo career with 13 points, including a game-tying three-pointer that rejuvenated the Lions when they’d been left for dead late in the fourth quarter. Ford’s seven points and six rebounds represented a typically active night for a 6-foot-2 “big man” who gave away size to every opponent he faced this season. Allen’s willingness to mix it up inside and guard any position on the floor gave Leo a toughness that can’t be measured in stats. 

“Cam’s leadership, Austin’s fight, Jamari’s energy … I love those guys, and we’re going to miss them,” Thompson said. “But they started something at Leo, and they’ll be able to look back and say that—they started something at Leo. This is only the beginning. We’re sad and disappointed and hurt right now, but mark my words, this is only the beginning.”       

Lions Winning Streak Ends Against DePaul Prep

It had been 10 games and 28 days since Leo’s name appeared on the ‘L’ side of a basketball score, so spotting it there was not a familiar sight.

Neither was it welcome, as it cost the Lions their hopes of an undefeated Catholic League season—on Senior Night, no less.

But hit just 22 percent of your shots and take a 33-21 whipping on the backboards against a team the caliber of DePaul Prep and a 48-38 outcome is almost predictable.

“I’m certainly not disappointed in the season we’ve had so far, but I’m disappointed in the way we played tonight,” Coach Jamal Thompson said after his team’s regular-season finale at Leo. “We weren’t aggressive. We didn’t attack.”

For one of the few times this season the Lions ran into a team with the same relentless commitment to defense that distinguishes them. Whether it was a 1-2-2 zone or a help-heavy man-to-man, the aggressive Rams simply denied the Lions the shots they normally take and make with aplomb, blocking six and discouraging at least a  dozen others, including layup after layup.

“They blocked a few and we started looking for a defender instead of shooting our normal shot,” Thompson said.

It might be basketball as mud wrestling, but DePaul excels at it. Especially when Jaylan McElroy, a 6-foot-6 sophomore with the wingspan of a much taller man, sets up shop inside and scores 17 points with nine rebounds and four blocks. Fellow sophomore Payton Kamin scored 11 for the Rams, including four straight free throws and a bucket to help them pull away after Leo had trimmed an 11-point deficit to four at the fourth-quarter mask timeout.

But, playing their fifth game in eight days, the Lions’ legs just weren’t there. They didn’t have a double-figures scorer, Austin Ford and Tyler Smith finishing with nine points apiece.

Cam Cleveland missed his third straight game, resting the knee he injured at St. Rita last week. He made a token appearance per an agreement between the coaches and scored on an uncontested layup in his final appearance at Leo’s gym. Fellow seniors Ford, Jamari Allen, Cy’Ree Johnson and Rob Smith also were honored in a pregame ceremony.

DePaul Prep is 21-4 overall and closes out an 11-3 Catholic League campaign with three straight victories over Brother Rice, St. Rita and Leo. The Rams will be a handful in the Class 2-A state tournament, which is the next order of business for the Lions ((21-3, 13-1) as well.

“We’re going to break down this film and go over every play,” Thompson promised. “It’s a new season, but we’re only guaranteed one more game. It can’t be a game like this one.“

Lions’ Streak Continues Against Scales Mound

By Dan McGrath

In this well-presented remake of “Hoosiers,” South Bend Central turns back Hickory and wins.

There was an unmistakable “Hoosiers”-like feel to Scales Mound vs. Leo, the marquee matchup of the eight-game Indian Creek Shootout in Shabbona, IL., on Saturday, Feb. 12. Representing a school of just 70 students from a hamlet of 474 people located “at the highest point in Illinois” 12 miles northwest of Galena, the all-white Hornets had shared the ball, shot the ball and defended well enough to compile a 27-1 record and the No. 2 ranking among the state’s Class 1-A teams.

Curiosity over how their boys would fare against the all-black, decidedly urban, newly crowned Catholic League champs from Chicago’s South Side who happened to be ranked No.1 among 2-A teams led green-clad Scales Mounders to pack the cozy little gym at Indian Creek High School. They made their presence known each time a play went the Hornets’ way, creating the very atmosphere Leo Coach Jamal Thompson was seeking as he prepares the Lions for state tournament road tests.

Engaged crowd, fifth game in eight nights, injury to the team captain, lengthy bus ride … Leo overcame it all in crafting a 55-50 victory, its 10th straight in a 21-3 season. Scales Mound (27-2), champion of the Northwest Illini West Conference, saw its nine-game winning streak end, but came away with the winners’ respect.

“We knew they could shoot,” Thompson said, “but they handled the ball better than we expected. They defended, they were patient and they never backed down.”

The quickness and anticipation that fuels its press was Leo’s weapon of choice, producing 16 steals. Three of them occurred during an 8-0 run that stretched a two-point lead to 10 (41-31) early in the fourth quarter. But the Hornets would’t go away, and with Ben Vandigo (18 points) revisiting the role of Hickory’s Jimmy Chitwood, got within 47-45 just after the fourth-quarter mask timeout at 3:32.

Once again Leo turned up its defensive pressure and created another 8-0 run out of four layups for a game-sealing 10-point advantage with 50 seconds left.

It was over, but it surely wasn’t easy. Playing on tired legs, the Lions nearly offset those 16 steals by allowing 10 offensive rebounds, giving the Hornets too many second chances.

“Can’t have that,” Thompson said.

Jakeem Cole’s 18 points lead the Lions. Tyler Smith had 14, Austin Ford scored 12 with eight rebounds, and Christian Brockett had seven points, eight assists and six steals. Cameron Cleveland sat out a second straight game, resting the knee he injured against St. Rita last week. Jamari Allen’s return provided a lift off the bench.

In addition to Chit… Vandigo’s 18, Scales Mound got 11 points from Collin Fosler and 10 from Ben Werner.

“If we can play 94 feet for four quarters, we give ourselves a chance,” Thompson said. “But let’s not take anything away from these guys. They were good.”

The sincerity of the exchanges in the postgame handshake line conveyed mutual respect, and as they left the building, several Scales Mound fans congratulated the Lions and wished them well in the tournament.

It was a fruitful trip, for sure.

Next: DePaul Prep (20-4, 10-3), Tuesday, Feb. 15 at Leo, Senior Night and a chance at an undefeated Catholic League season.

“Nobody has done that in a while,” Thompson said. “It would be a cool thing to be remembered for. As hard as they’ve played, our guys deserve to be remembered.”

Lions Go Into St. Laurence and Win 64-57

Catholic League champs? It has a nice ring to it.

The Leo Lions were three quarters of the way through an unexpectedly tough slog against the St. Laurence Vikings in Burbank when word reached their bench that DePaul Prep had knocked off St. Rita. That meant every team in the CCL had at least two conference losses except Leo, which would get to 13-0 with one game remaining by finishing off the Vikings.

Consider it done, 64-57. Not exactly artistic, but undeniably effective.

“I love you guys,” Coach Jamal Thompson said after he’d been doused with water, Gatorade and good cheer in a victorious locker room. “I’ve yelled at you, I’ve been hard on you, but you’ve given me everything I asked for. And here we are.”

Catholic League champs—for the first time since 2010. It has a nice ring to it.

 “But it’s only the first step,” Thompson reminded.

Fourteen hours later, the Lions would board a bus for a 76-mile trip to Shabonna and a game against Class 1-A state contender Scales Mound in the Indian Creek Shootout. A Senior Night showdown with DePaul Prep at Leo on Tuesday, Feb. 15 concludes the regular season. Leo (20-3 overall) is likely to be the top seed in the Class 2-A state tournament, which gets under way with regional play on Feb. 21.  

After two-plus weeks of enervating warfare against the likes of Loyola, Mount Carmel, Brother Rice and St. Rita, the Lions got more than they expected from St. Laurence, which was 8-21, 2-10 coming in. In fact, with their freshmen and sophomore-dominated roster, the Vikings resembled the youthful Leo team that struggled through the 2021 COVID spring season while learning what it takes to play Catholic League basketball.

They were plucky and persistent throughout a first half that would have ended deadlocked if Ahdrean Ellis hadn’t beaten the buzzer with a three-pointer that gave Leo a 28-25 lead at the break.

Midway through the third, Leo’s Austin Ford and Jarrod Gee fueled an 8-0 run that took less than a minute, stretched a six-point lead to 14 and gave off a let’s-settle-this-right-here vibe. The seven-point final margin was as close as the Vikings would subsequently get, though they left the impression that they could be handful in a year or two. 

Cameron Cleveland spent the night on the bench resting the knee he injured against St.  Rita three nights earlier. The Lions missed his versatility and court sense, though Ford picked up some of the slack with 20 points, eight rebounds and four steals. Jakeem Cole scored 18, six coming on back-to-back three-pointers that helped the Lions break it open in the third quarter. Tyler Smith scored 10 points, and Christian Brockett had six points, eight assists and four steals.

Catholic League champs? It has a nice ring to it.   

“But it’s only the first step,” Thompson insisted.    

Lions Beat St. Rita on Tip In at the Buzzer

By Dan McGrath

Christian Brockett took off on a left-handed drive down the lane in the final seconds of a 57-all tie. He flipped up a runner that Morez Johnson got a piece of, and the ball seemed to hang in the air.

Slipping into the lane unencumbered, Austin Ford timed his jump, corralled his teammate’s miss and eased it back through the hoop, as gently as one might burp a baby. The horn sounded as the ball nestled through the net, and the visiting Leo Lions had a 59-57 victory over St. Rita that defied all laws of probability. 

How Ford managed such a delicate maneuver after 39-plus minutes of furiously competitive basketball was, well, a sidelight. So were his 17 second-half points, and Leo’s 19-3 record, eight-game winning streak, and 12-0 Catholic League mark that gives the Lions the inside track to their first conference championship since 2010.

But THE story of this Tuesday, Feb. 8 evening, the thing that prompted Leo fans to storm the court in disbelief as much as jubilation, was the Lions’ comeback from a 17-point deficit against a long, strong and quick team that looked as formidable as any Leo has faced this season.

At 6-feet-9, the sophomore Johnson personified St. Rita’s size advantage; his 10 first-half points featured three monster dunks that had the St. Rita segment of the crowd in a tizzy. 

Fellow sophomore Jaedin Reyna was as quick as any Leo guard and seemed impervious to their pressure while collecting 10 points of his own. The halftime score was 35-20 St. Rita, and the haughty Mustangs (18-8, 9-0 coming in) appeared to be cruising.

But howling at the moon is more sensible than counting out the Lions in this season of surprises. Brockett, Jakeem Cole and Tyler Smith found their legs and began attacking the basket in the third quarter. When St. Rita’s bigs came out to contest, Ford slipped behind them for baseline layups.

At the other end, Leo’s guards stepped up their pressure on Reyna, wearing him down in the absence of a secondary ballhandler. He scored only two second-half points, and six St. Rita turnovers surely contributed to Leo’s 22-5 third-quarter domination.

The Lions saved their best for last in the period. The ball was in Ford’s hands as the third-quarter clock wound down, and given his location, he was probably the last guy Leo wanted shooting. But he launched a three from in front of his bench that dropped cleanly, giving the Lions a 42-40 lead after three periods.

It would grow to five, though Johnson would do his best to keep the Mustangs in it, scoring 10 of his game-high 22 in the fourth quarter. Leo’s lead was two when Smith slithered his way to a lefty layup and a 57-53 advantage with just under a minute left. 

One stop might have sealed it, but sensing that, the Lions were both overly aggressive and careless, wrapping two fouls around a turnover. The Mustangs tied it with four straight free throws, Reyna’s two coming with 10.8 seconds left. 

Leo called time. Then came Brockett … then Ford … then bedlam.

“I don’t really have anything to say,” Coach Jamal Thompson offered, exhaustion evident in his voice, “except that I’m extremely proud of our guys. We keep saying we’re a four-quarters team, and we surely were tonight. We had to be. We never gave up, never quit, even when it looked bad. Proud of them.”

Ford finished with a team-high 19 points and six rebounds. Smith and Cole had 15 apiece, 13 of Cole’s coming in the second half. The Lions had 12 assists to only nine turnovers—impressive given the pace of the game—and hit 16 of 19 free throws.

It all came at a price. Ford got whacked in the eye on a putback and squinted through the fourth quarter looking as if he’d taken a left hook from Joe Frazier. Cam Cleveland shot (and made) his two free throws when Ford required treatment for the injury; Cleveland was on the bench after banging his knee in a sideline collision and played very little in the fourth.

One suspects they’ll be in the lineup on Friday (Feb. 11) when the Lions travel to St. Laurence.  

Lions Keep On Winning in Close Victory Over Oak Forest

By Dan McGrath

Try to envision a nine-point play.

Late in the second quarter of the Leo-Oak Forest game at the Evergreen Park Shootout on Sunday, Feb. 6, Oak Forest’s man-child center Robbie Avila drew a foul while converting a putback basket. Someone in a Leo uniform yapped about the call and was assessed a technical foul.

Avila made his free throw, plus the two Oak Forest was awarded for the technical. The Bengals retained possession and scored again. Leo then turned the ball over as it inbounded, and another Bengals bucket completed a 9-0 run that in a matter of seconds transformed a one-point deficit into an eight-point lead.

It would grow to 12 early in the third period. And, given the energy Leo had expended in subduing Brother Rice less than 48 hours earlier, it would have been understandable if the Lions had submitted to tired legs and gone quietly—Rice had simply run out of gas and lost to Homewood-Flossmoor in the preceding game.

Submit? Not these Lions. They just kept playing, kept hustling, kept pressing, their effort unrelenting. Jakeem Cole’s 13-point third quarter brought them back. When Oak Forest went to a box-and-one to deny Cole the ball, Tyler Smith and Cameron Cleveland took over. Austin Ford’s foul-line jumper tied the game at 65. After Avila missed the front end of a one-and-one, Smith blew by his man and late-arriving help for a layup that put Leo up 67-65 with 14.5 seconds left.

Oak Forest called time, then lined up Taurean Mickens for a three-pointer from the corner that would have restored its lead … if Cleveland hadn’t flown out to block it. Ford was fouled after grabbing the loose ball. Leo was not yet in the bonus, but as they inbounded, the Lions ran a smart play that got Cole loose for a layup and the 69-65 final.

No one in the gym was quite sure how, but Leo is now 18-3 for the season and riding a seven-game winning streak. The Lions are No. 7 in the Chicago Sun-Times metro-area rankings heading into Tuesday night’s showdown at St. Rita (18-8, 9-0 Catholic League). 

“Four quarters, baby,” Coach Jamal Thompson said. “One thing that’s true of this team is we’re always going to play four quarters. We sure did tonight. I’m proud of the effort.”

Oak Forest coach Matt Manzke is the son of Mike Manzke ’68, the third of four Manzke brothers—Eddie ’62, Denny ’63, Mike ’68, Bobby ’70—who comprise the first family of Leo basketball. In Avila he has a weapon as potent as the Lions have seen this season. 

The big kid’s skills and agility match his size (6-feet-8, 240 pounds), and he smoothly bedeviled the Lions with 19 points in the first half. But they doubled up on him in the second and limited him to four as the Bengals sometimes seemed to forget Avila was among them.

Cole’s 23 points give him 110 in his last five games. Smith scored 15, and Cleveland augmented his 17 with three highlight-reel plays.

In the second quarter, he pinned a shot off the backboard, retrieved the carom and initiated a one-man break that resulted in a three-point play when he was fouled while flicking in a short jumper.

In the midst of Leo’s comeback. Cleveland missed the second of two free throws, but tracked down the loose ball in the corner, stepped back and nailed a three-pointer that brought Leo within 65-63.

Finally … each of Mickens’ previous four three-pointers had come from the corner, and a restoration of Oak Forest’s lead seemed inevitable as he lined up an open shot in response to Smith’s go-ahead layup. Somehow, Cleveland got to him, got a hand on the ball … this is a refuse-to-lose Leo team.

“Enjoy this tonight,” Thompson said, “but we’re back to work on Monday. There’s nobody I’d rather beat than St. Rita.”