Basketball Lions Open with a Big Win over Ignatius

By Dan McGrath

The gag around Leo High School is that if this were the old days of lightweight basketball, the Lions might run the table: Their roster is stocked with talented, versatile guards, most of whom could “measure in” under the old 5-foot-9 lightweight standard.

But basketball is a game in which size matters, and Leo was thought to be a little short—literally—in that area, particularly against St. Ignatius in the season opener at Leo on Friday, Jan. 3. The Wolfpack puts a college-sized front line on the floor, and silky-smooth senior guard A.J.Redd , who always seems to have the ball in his hands, is a sturdy 6-foot-3. 

Outmanned? Not Leo. The Lions scoffed at their size disadvantage and rode balanced scoring, swarming defense and a ton of grit to a 72-62 victory over a St. Ignatius squad that’s loaded with college prospects and pegged as top three caliber in the Catholic League.

“I’ve been reading all the previews, and we’re barely mentioned,” Coach Jamal Thompson said above the din in a jubilant winners’ locker room. “That’s OK. We know what we’re capable of.”

Leo played before its home fans for the first time since February of 2020, and those fans packed the venerable old third-floor gym, raising a ruckus at the opening tip and remaining loud and into it all night. The Lions may well have been a little too geeked up in the early going, missing seven of eight shots, committing four turnovers and trailing 10-2 four minutes in.

But they regrouped and got within four after one period, then rode Cameron Cleveland’s 13-point second quarter to a 32-30 halftime lead. 

That was a lounge-act warm-up to a third period in which Leo hit the startled Wolf Pack with 27 points and took control of the game. Jakeem Cole scored 10 points, Cleveland had eight and Austin Ford contributed six as the Lions hammered out a 59-47 lead after three. Eight points in arrears was as close as St. Ignatius could get in the final period as two garbage-time buckets reduced what had been a 15-point lead to the final margin of 10.

Cleveland finished with a game-high 24 points, Cole had 18, and Ford filled the stat sheet with 14 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Bench players Jarrod Gee Jr., Cyree Johnson and Jamari Allen also contributed meaningful minutes, Allen’s five rebounds and five-for-six free-throw shooting proving especially useful.

Wolfpack junior Richard Barron, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound beast, scored 14 of his team-high 20 points in the first half. Redd finessed his way to 17. 

“This is only a first step, but I’m proud of the guys,” Thompson said. “We practiced  hard all week, we listened, we got ourselves ready to play and we did what we needed to do. With the way the crowd was into it, it was a great night.”

Indeed.

Leo is back in action on Tuesday,  Dec. 7, visiting St. Francis de Sales.

Chicago Magazine: Shaka Rawls, CHICAGOAN OF THE YEAR 2021

Shaka Rawls: Creating safer spaces for young men of color

As many local schools shuttered for summer break this year, Shaka Rawls, the principal of Leo Catholic High School, transformed the all-boys school into a tuition-free camp.

Rawls created what he calls an “enclave” in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood to protect the roughly 60 students who enrolled in the summer camp from the crime, poverty, gangs, and gun violence that hang low and heavy when school’s out.

“We felt like it was better to have our boys safely within our grasp,” says Rawls. “We are safer together here in this building.”

Because grades weren’t given at camp, there was no fear of making mistakes, Rawls says. There was just math, English, and ACT prep, followed by afternoons of building robots and writing code, creating mosaics, or playing with spatial articulation.

Rawls’s educational approach flows from a place of love and deep understanding. After all, the 46-year-old was once a “whippersnapper” who graduated in 1993 from the very high school he now leads. Rawls says he sees himself in his boys and them in him.

That connection works.

Since Rawls became principal in 2016, he’s instituted a science, technology, engineering, and math initiative. The high school continues to have a 100 percent graduation and college acceptance rate.

In a world where the lives of Black and brown boys on the South and West Sides of Chicago are disproportionately bombarded with things no human should have to wrestle with — fear, violence, racism, police brutality — Rawls spends his days (and many nights) nurturing, encouraging, and celebrating his 210 students, 94 percent of whom are Black, 6 percent of whom are Latino.

He and his staff work to fine-tune the students’ strengths and talents, instill a sense of purpose, and ensure they never doubt their worth. Rawls is quick to reach out if he sees one of his students wander or stumble. He estimates more than half of his students have his mobile phone number, which they use frequently.

Although he has spent the bulk of his career in administration and policy, Rawls sees himself as more of a social activist than an educator. His work, he explains, is merely a natural extension of who he is. The sense of community caregiving and advocacy Rawls promotes is an ethos, not an indoctrination, and is organic for incoming freshmen, like hopping on a train that already exists.

New students are expected to bring unique ideas to engage the community. They learn they are part of a brotherhood, in service to one another. “Our whole vocabulary is about how we are interdependent, not just inside the high school, but our community at large,” Rawls says.

This year, Rawls was inspired by a school billboard with the tagline “In a time of social distancing, Leo is bringing people together.” So he did it — virtually.

To demolish the “us and them” narrative between law enforcement and young Black and brown men, Rawls set up a series of web conferences with his students and a stream of police and military officers, FBI agents, prosecutors, and judges. The floor — or rather the chat box — was open.

The principal’s hope was that the experience would help both his students and the law enforcement officials see each other as fellow human beings.

“We wanted to dismantle this socially constructed disconnect and bring them together in the same space and realize that we all want the same thing: We have families we love; we have faith in God and community,” Rawls says. “We all want to go home at night.”

Football Lions Win Thriller at Rich Township with Last Second TD

By Dan McGrath

With all that had befallen the Leo Lions during a four-game losing streak that capsized their season, there was a surreal feeling to the 20-6 halftime lead they took at Rich Township on Saturday, Oct. 23—surreal as in “This can’t be happening.”

Sure enough, senior running back James Saunders scored three of his four touchdowns in the second half, and the momentum shift was visible for all to see when Saunders’ 5-yard TD run and quarterback Cory Stennis’ madcap conversion dash pulled the Raptors even at 28-all with 3:32 remaining.

Out of timeouts, the dispirited Lions had to start their final possession at their 16-yard line after mishandling Rich Township’s kickoff. 

But junior quarterback Matthew Harvey moved them to the Raptors’ 34 with passes to Kevin Jackson (22 yards), Rayion Davidson (9 yards) and Merrick Sample (11 yards). Three straight incompletions stalled the drive, and with one play remaining, Harvey floated one up toward Davidson, who outfought defender Javion Fox for the ball at the 10-yard line, then muscled through two tacklers near the goal line for the touchdown that gave Leo (3-6) a 34-28 victory in a nonconference but highly satisfying regular-season finale.

The Lions’ uninhibited end-zone celebration suggested they had achieved something meaningful … because they had.

“It’s been a rough few weeks with the injuries and all,” Coach Mike Holmes acknowledged, “but we never stopped fighting, never stopped competing. And when you keep fighting, good things happen. I’m proud of the guys.” 

Rich Township’s Homecoming crowd was large and festive as the Raptors returned to the field after a COVID-induced three-week layoff. The officiating crew looked as if it had been away for a while as well: the Lions were limited to three downs on one possession, the Raptors were given five downs on another, the play clock seemed to be operating by whim rather than rule, and being out of timeouts for the final series was news to Leo.

Still …

Harvey stood out in his first extended playing time as a replacement for injured QB James E’Akels. Sharing the duty with senior Chris Lindo, the strong-armed junior averaged 23.6 yards on his seven completions (in 12 attempts), with TD passes of 26 yards to Sample and 37 yards to Jackson, in addition to his game-winning heave to Rayion Davidson.

Jackson also connected with Austin Ford for a 22-yard TD on a nifty double-reverse pass. Junior Rayshaun Davidson got the Lions their first touchdown with a 48-yard run during a 20-point second quarter.  

Lindo completed just two of eight passes for 37 yards, but what he really did was play football: He ran for 38 yards on nine carries, blocked like a demon, took some turns in the secondary and returned punts and kickoffs.

Only once this season, in the opener against Chicago Bulls Prep, did the Lions score more points or amass more yardage, but the defense had its moments as well, most notably on a goal-line stand after the hosts blocked a punt and took over at Leo 1-yard line late in the first quarter. Linebacker Isaiah Knox nailed Stennis for 2- and 7-yard losses on successive plays as Leo kept the Raptors out of the end zone. 

The Lions’ season is expected to continue into Prep Bowl playoffs, with pairings to be announced this week. At last they have something to build on. 

Watch the winning TD here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVfwKP2tWhY

Football Lions Have a Tough Time Against Marmion

The Leo Lions can offer grim affirmation of the old football axiom that quarterback is the most important position on the field.

Leo has scored just one touchdown in the three games since senior quarterback James E’Akels was lost to a concussion. With two untested subs manning the position, it’s really no surprise that the Lions’ losing streak reached three in a 34-0 Senior Day pasting by Marmion Academy at St. Rita’s Pat Cronin Field on Saturday, Oct. 16.

Leo might have known it was in for a rough day when Marmion linebacker Jacob Bottarini intercepted its first pass of the day and brought it back 36 yards for a touchdown. The Lions’ defense played with admirable purpose for the remainder of the half and kept Marmion from scoring again, though the Cadets were complicit in their own struggles, throwing an end-zone interception, losing a fumble at the 1-yard line and accumulating nearly 100 yards in penalties.

Junior cornerback Tim Durr made the interception and recovered the fumble.

But with four interceptions and three lost fumbles keeping the Lions from getting anything going offensively, their defense once again wore down from overuse. Marmion scored on its first three second-half possessions, twice as a result of turnovers, and a once-promising Leo season continued to deteriorate into an injury-ravaged 2-6 nightmare.   

Marmion quarterback Daniel Chung, meanwhile, was solid rather than spectacular in helping the Cadets (5-3) solidify their IHSA playoff hopes. Chung completed six of nine passes for 122 yards and two touchdowns, a 56-yarder to Joshua Lim and a 36-yarder to Alexander Valenzuela. Lim scored another touchdown on a two-yard run, and Anthony Kuceba scored from a yard out.

Leo’s offensive highlights were limited to junior Rayshaun Davidson’s 31-yard run and a 17-yard pop by senior Marcus Ray. The Lions’ longest pass play went for just eight yards, and they had only one completion in the second half.

Remaining on the Leo schedule is nonconference season finale at Rich Township on Saturday, Oct. 23. A decision on whether the game will be played is expected mid-week, as Rich Township has been dealing with COVID issues in recent weeks. 

Football Lions Stumble at Nazareth

By Dan McGrath

With a roster so depleted by injuries that it’s almost unrecognizable, the Leo Lions needed to be perfect to stand a chance against Nazareth in a Catholic League/East Suburban Catholc Conference crossover game in La Grange on Friday, Oct. 8.

Moreover, the Roadrunners, an uncharacteristic 2-4 coming in, were playing for their playoff lives … and celebrating homecoming before a large, festive crowd.

Four turnovers created an insurmountable gap between Leo and perfection.

To their credit, the Lions conceded nothing and competed gamely through the final whistle. But Naz just had too many weapons, and the 42-6 final was fairly indicative of where the two teams stand seven weeks into a nine-week regular season. 

One of the more potent Nazareth weapons is a mere freshman. Coach Tim Racki went with Logan Malachuk at quarterback after the Roadrunners opened with three straight losses. They’ve gone 3-1 in his four starts, and the Lions can attest to why after the youngster completed nine of 13 passes for 160 yards and four touchdowns: 36 and 15 yards to Quentrell Harris, 16 yards to James Penley and 11 yards to Justin Taylor.

Kaleb Miller (10 carries, 91 yards) added a 5-yard touchdown run, and Harris brought Leo’s first punt of the night back 48 yards for a score, setting the tone for the big-play fireworks to follow.

In James E’Akels’ injury-induced absence, Leo also went with a freshman quarterback. Derrion Lee connected on four of nine passes for 36 yards but was constantly under siege by Nazareth’s swarming defense and threw two interceptions that negated productive possessions. 

Junior Matthew Harvey (5-for-8, 43 yards) took over in the second half and was on the field for Leo’s lone touchdown, junior Rayshaun Davidson’s 17-yard run. 

Senior Rayion Davidson had a 51-yard run on a reverse and senior Austin Ford’s two catches covered 31 yards. That was pretty much the extent of Leo’s offensive highlights. 

With their IHSA playoff hopes dashed, the Lions (2-5) will be playing for pride when they host Marmion on Senior Day at St. Rita’s Pat Cronin Field on Saturday, Oct. 16. Kickoff is at 1 p.m. Their nonconference regular-season finale at Rich Township scheduled for Friday, Oct. 22 is likely to be canceled due to a COVID outbreak within the Rich Township School District.    

Football Lions Blanked by Marian Central

By David Gross ’22

On a wet Friday night to start the month of October, the Leo Lions traveled to Woodstock to face Marian Central Catholic in Catholic League/East Suburban Catholic Conference football.

The Lions were without their starting quarterback, running back, linebacker and punter, and the injuries contributed to an inefficient showing on offense as Leo was blanked, 29-0.

The Lions were within 9-0 at halftime, but with the offense stymied, the defense wore down from overuse as Marian (2-3) pulled away in the second half to the 29-0 final.

Save for a 49-yard completion to senior wideout Austin Ford, Leo’s big plays came from its defense. Senior linebacker Jamari Allen had 11 tackles and a sack. Senior safety Tavion Gamblin made six tackles, and senior cornerback Rayion Davidson intercepted a pass.

Marian’s quarterback threw three touchdown passes and ran for a fourth.

The Lions (2-4) will hope for better health when they travel to La Grange to face Nazareth on Friday, Oct. 8. They play their Senior Day home finale against Marmion at St. Rita’s Cronin Field on Saturday, Oct. 16, and it might be their season finale as well; the Friday, Oct. 22 game at Rich Township is in danger of being canceled because of a COVID outbreak within the Rich Township school district.

Senior David Gross will graduate from Leo in May and intends to study sports journalism in college.  

Football Lions Fall to Montini in a Close One

Leo’s performance against Montini in a Catholic League/East Suburban Catholic crossover football game had too many distracting flaws to qualify as a thing of beauty, which was unfortunate. 

The Lions emptied the tank in terms of effort, only to fall 39-32 when Montini’s Cole Teschner threw a 26-yard touchdown pass to Estevan Moreno to break a 32-all tie late in the final period before a Montini Homecoming crowd on Friday, Sept. 24 in Lombard.

With a steady, game-long drizzle intensifying, Leo traveled 43 yards in just over a minute on its final possession, but turned the ball over on downs after reaching Montni’s 24-yard line. The Broncos then ran out the clock, leaving both teams with 2-3 records … and the knowledge that they had been in an enervating, entertaining ballgame.

The second Teschner-Moreno TD collaboration of the evening was rather tame in comparison with the big-play haymakers that preceded it. Leo pulled even at 32 when a botched snap on a Montini field goal try wound up in Tim Durr’s hands and the junior defensive back brought it back 90 yards for a touchdown.

Earlier, quarterback James E’Akels and wide receiver Austin Ford hooked up for a 68-yard score, and junior running back Rayshaun Davidson turned a short gain into a 55-yard TD by keeping his legs moving and slipping through a pile of bodies just beyond the line of scrimmage. 

E’Akels completed 10 of 18 passes for 187 yards and two touchdowns, one to Ford and one covering 12 yards to Rayion Davidson. He also had a three-yard touchdown run, while Marcus Ray’s 17 carries produced 96 yards.

Montini, meanwhile, hardly looked like a team that had managed just 55 points in its first four games. Teschner was 11-for-20 for 230 yards and TD throws of 16 and 27 yards to Moreno. He set up a third score with an 81-yard bomb to Julian Turner. Josh Robinson’s 18-carry, 155-yard night featured a 68-yard touchdown scamper. 

As the evening wore on, some after-the-whistle skirmishing spoke to both teams’ frustration with the officiating. Charitably speaking, the men in stripes were inconsistent with some of their calls, but, candidly speaking, two interceptions, a lost fumble, a blocked punt and careless penalties that wiped out two first-down gains were just as complicit in the Lions’ loss as suspect officiating. 

Next up for Leo is a trip to Woodstock for a meeting with Marian Central Catholic (1-3) on Friday, Oct. 1. The Lions find themselves needing to win three of their final four games to be assured of a playoff berth.  

Football Lions Back in the Win Column with Victory Over DePaul

By Dan McGrath

Maybe it was the disappointment of back-to-back one-score losses, to Marian Catholic and Carmel/Mundelein.

Maybe it was the memory of a demoralizing shutout loss to DePaul Prep during the COVID-created Spring Football season earlier this year. 

Maybe it was the spirit of Homecoming.

Whatever the motivation, it spurred the Leo Lions to one of their more impressive performances in recent football seasons, a 28-14 spanking of DePaul Prep before a festive Homecoming crowd on a gorgeous Saturday night (Sept. 18) at St. Rita’s Cronin Field.

Both teams are 2-2 overall. Leo is 1-0 and the Rams are 0-1 in the Chicago Catholic League/East Suburban Catholic Conference Red Division.  

Balance was the byword for the Lions. They piled up 215 passing yards and 171 rushing yards, they were turnover-free and they mounted several long drives that produced four touchdowns and kept the ball out of the hands of Chris Perez, DePaul’s dual-threat senior quarterback.

Leo’s defense, meanwhile, pitched a shutout until late in the third period, when a bad punt snap gave the Rams the ball inside the 10-yard line, setting up their first touchdown. Late in the fourth they added a garbage-time score, putting together a drive that helped Perez finish with credible numbers: 12-for-21 passing for 103 yards and a 5-yard TD flip to sophomore Lavelle Hardy; 13 carries for 80 yards and a 10-yard TD run that brought the final score to 28-14 with less than a minute left. 

The Lions spread the wealth on offense as senior quarterback James E’Akels completed 12 of 25 passes for 215 yards and a touchdown, a 27-yard strike to fellow senior Rayion Davidson, who had five catches for 101 yards. Austin Ford’s three catches produced 70 yards. 

Marcus Ray carried 21 times for 92 hard-earned yards and touchdowns covering eight and four yards. Ray cost himself a third score when he lost the ball while crossing the goal line, but teammate Chris Lindo was there for the recovery and the touchdown. The play was indicative of Lindo’s right-place/right-time evening; he also had three catches for 28 yards and 24-yard run on a fourth-and-five fake punt play that kept a Leo scoring drive alive.

Tim Durr gained 56 yards on eight carries and joined defensive tackle Jakolbi Wilson and linebacker Isaiah Knox in making tackles all over the field. Kevin Jackson’s end-zone interception denied the Rams a scoring opportunity when it was still a ballgame.

Not to be overlooked: Senior Will Anderson was 4-for-4 on PAT kicks, one week after Leo disained PAT kicks for two-point tries and converted just one of five in a three-point loss at  Carmel/Mundelein. 

Next up for the Lions: a trip to Lombard and a meeting with Montini on Friday, Sept. 24, 7 p.m. kickoff. Leo hasn’t beaten Montini in the eight years the Broncos have been Catholic League members, but Montini is an uncharacteristic 1-3 after recent losses to Marmion and St. Laurence. Maybe this is the year.

General Walker, Our 2021 Scholarship Benefit Honoree, in the New York Times

General Walker, the 2021 Leo Scholarship Benefit Honoree, was featured in an article in the September 18 New York Times. In it he talks about how he has to secure the Capitol against another rampage like the one on January 6.

Here’s the link: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/17/us/william-walker-capitol-riot-security.html

Football Lions Lose a Tough One to Carmel

By David Gross ’22

After a dominant win over Chicago Bulls Academy in their season opener and a one-score loss to Marian Catholic in Week 2, the Leo Lions played what was probably their best game of the season on Friday, Sept. 10.

But the end result was another one-score loss, 35-32 to Carmel Catholic on Senior Night before an estimated 2,000 fans in Mundelein. Carmel’s coach is Jason McKie, the former Chicago Bears fullback.

Each team scored five touchdowns, but the Corsairs were 5-for-5 on conversion kicks while the Lions were just 1-for-5 on two-point tries, accounting for the three-point differential.

Turnovers and minor mistakes that added up also contributed to the Lions’ undoing.

A 70-yard pass play on the game’s first series set up a Carmel touchdown, and the Corsairs never trailed in improving to 2-1. Leo fell to 1-2. 

Senior quarterback James E’Akels threw two interceptions and lost the ball on a strip sack but still enjoyed his most productive night of the season, running for two touchdowns and throwing for two while accumulating a career-high 282 passing yards and 21 rushing yards. 

Junior Kevin Jackson enjoyed a coming-out party with five receptions for 152 yards, including a 65-yard touchdown catch that brought the Lions within a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Jackson also caught a two-point conversion pass and made an interception. 

Junior Merrick Sample had two catches for 65 yards, while senior Austin Ford’s lone reception went for 30 yards. 

Senior Marcus Ray was Leo’s leading rusher with 78 yards on 17 carries. Junior linebacker Isaiah Knox led the defense with 10 tackles. Junior cornerback Tim Durr had seven tackles and an interception.

Next up for the Lions is their Homecoming game against DePaul Prep (2-1) at St. Rita’s Cronin Field on Saturday at 7 p.m.

David Gross is a Leo senior who will graduate with the Class of 2022 in May.