Leo Youth Roars to IHSA Win As March Madness Begins

by Bill Figel

Leo’s young varsity players cleared their first hurdle in IHSA 2-A division competition Wednesday night at Julian High School beating Longwood 35-34 in a tense game decided as the final shot clanged off the backboard and rim. 

Leo never trailed in its first regional game and ran its record to 12-19 on the season. 

In a game of spurts and breakdowns, the Lions coughed up the ball and leads of 14-2 at the end of the first quarter and 17-10 at half.

Led by Kalvin Leonard’s 23 points, Longwood got within one – and the final scoring – with 20 seconds left on Leonard’s 35-foot wide-open wing jumper. After Longwood got the ball back with 11 seconds left, Leo doubled up on Leonard who was looking for the same magic as time expired but his shot hit hard off glass and rim in that order.

Junior forward Neil Anderson led the Lions with 11 points while working the post and the offensive glass. Ramone Little chipped in eight points.

Freshman point guard Brandon Gandy may have saved the day and helped the Lions advance in a game in which they were not at their best.

With the score 29-24 and Longwood beginning to believe, Gandy entered the game to start the fourth quarter. The slender 6-1 shooter nailed a three to break a tie at 24, forced two turnovers, fed Anderson on two open-floor breakaways and pump faked a jumper leading to his own baseline layup to give Leo a 35-29 lead and finish Leo’s scoring for the night with 4:35 to play. 

Grandy finished with five points, two steals and three assists in half a frame of action.

Leo’s defensive schemes worked early and late, both its man-to-man coverage and an impressive half-court trap with its “bigs up front” to cause havoc. In all Leo forced six Longwood turnovers in the first half and 10 in the second half.

Leo entered the IHSA 2-A division as a No. 2 seed at the Julian Regional Wednesday and will face host Julian (23-5, the No. 3 seed) that beat No. 5 seed Butler College Prep (13-16).

Leo and Julian tip off at 7:00 Friday, with the victor taking the regional title and earning a berth in the Corliss Sectional.

Hansberry (16-10), competing in the South Shore Regional, is the No. 1 seed in the Corliss Sectional that begins next week.

Julian is located at 10330 South Elizabeth Street, just east of Vincennes Avenue. There is plenty of parking in front of the building and west of the building.

Leo Youth To Be Tested Again As IHSA, March Madness Get Underway

By Bill Figel

The ups and downs of any regular season define the character of a team heading into playoff competition. 

Leo finished its regular season 11-19 and 1-6 in Catholic League play. During the toughest stretch run in Catholic League play, the Lions’ flirtation with a .500 record proved a slippery slope. 

But now a fresh start begins with records in the wake while the threat of single elimination looms large as a season finale. 

Leo enters the IHSA 2A division as a No. 2 seed at the Julian Regional Wednesday at 6 p.m. versus No. 6 seed Longwood. 

Julian is located at 10330 South Elizabeth Street, just east of Vincennes Avenue. 

Leo’s biggest believer is the man in charge – Coach Jamille Ridley – who values the “ups” in the season while viewing the “downs” as a kind of science experiment with results, not failures. 

“This is a great collection of young men who have developed over time, and they’re getting better,” said Ridley. “To be a basketball player at a place like Leo High School – that is an historic basketball program and has a history and tradition of taking young men where they are and pushing them – is a great experience.” 

Two recent barometers give Leo faithful reason to believe the young Lions will continue to make significant strides, reverse the turnover-to-assist ratio that has plagued them and win the regional at hand. 

First, the Leo’s underclassmen who make up the bulk of the varsity roster went 2-1 in Saturday’s Catholic League sophomore tournament with victories over DePaul Prep and host DeLaSalle before losing in the championship to Loyola Academy. 

Brian Kizer, Nate Stephens, Karon Shavers and Brandon Gandy “were amazing” in the one-day tournament, according to Ridley. 

“This is really the foundation of our program going forward,” said Ridley. 

Second, the Chicago Sun-Times listed Oak Lawn as one of the top 12, “most dangerous” teams in the 4A bracket. 

The Leo Lions gave Oak Lawn – winners of 11 of its last 13 – all it could muster two weeks ago in the Evergreen Park Hoops Invitational before succumbing to the bigger, upper classmen Spartans 68-61. 

Junior point guard Marlo Moore proved a solid a floor leader and three-point threat in that contest while helping the Lions keep it close, especially in the first half. Moore’s leadership will be counted on Wednesday along with Stephen Barze, an effective and proven scorer. 

Host Julian (21-5), the No. 3 seed, will face No. 5 seed Butler College Prep (13-15) at 7:30, with the winners meeting for the regional title and a berth in the Corliss Sectional on Friday, Feb. 23 at 7 p.m. 

Hansberry (16-10), competing in the South Shore Regional, is the No. 1 seed in the Corliss Sectional.

Leo Falls to St. Ignatius on the Wolfpack’s Senior Night

By Bill Figel Leo and St. Ignatius – both in the highly competitive Catholic League Blue – faced off Friday night with the home team beating the Lions 72-43 on Senior Night, which served as another reminder of how young Leo is with only one senior. Leo finished its regular season 11-18 and 1-6 in Catholic League play. While the young Lions have made significant strides this season, turnovers continued to plague them. A heads up 30-footer by Marlo Moore sparked the Lions to close the first quarter down 16-11. As St. Ignatius saluted its seniors with generous playing minutes for some non-starters, Leo was able to keep the contest close, trailing 18-16 early in the second quarter. Enter the regulars, who smacked Leo with a 24-6 run for a 42-22 lead at half, along with a tutorial on crisp passing, limited dribbling and interior strength. The home team had three players in double figures, led by Reggie Ray’s 13. Stephen Barze led the way for Leo early with eight points and Kam’ron Dove decorated the scorebook with three 3’s in the final frame for a team-high nine points. The good news is the Lions’ season starts fresh on Wednesday, February 21, after some home court practices to prepare for the spacious gym at Julian, where the Lions have had success and could win a regional with the lessons learned this season. Leo enters the IHSA 2A division as a No. 2 seed at the Corliss Sectional at 6 p.m. versus the winner of the play-in game between No. 8 seed Harlan and No. 6 seed Longwood. Julian is located at 10330 South Elizabeth Street, just east of Vincennes Avenue. Host Julian (21-5), the No. 3 seed, will face No. 5 seed Butler  College Prep (13-15) at 7:30, with the winners meeting for the regional title and a berth in the Corliss Sectional on Friday, Feb. 23 at 7 p.m. Hansberry (16-10), competing in the South Shore Regional, is the No. 1 seed in the Corliss Sectional.

Mt. Carmel defeats Our Lions, 63-41

By Dan McGrath

If the Leo Lions didn’t get a good enough sense of what a championship team looks like in earlier beatdowns by Catholic League Blue powers Brother Rice (70-34)  and DePaul Prep (62-23) this season, Mt. Carmel offered them a refresher course at Leo Tuesday night.

The Caravan (26-3, 5-0 CCL Blue, No. 4 Chicago Sun-Times) sped out to a 39-14 halftime lead as sophomore point guard Noah Mister collected 17 points with five assists. 

To their credit, the Lions kept playing hard, and Carmel’s delay tactics and liberal substitutions made for a more competitive second half. But Leo was never in it and lost 63-41, falling to 11-17, 1-5.

“We don’t play well in ‘the Den,’” Carmel Coach Phil Segroves insisted before the game, but his “concern” was quickly alleviated as the Caravan seemed to make every shot they took in opening a 21-9 first-quarter lead. It was Game Over after Leo shot 2-for-10 and committed six turnovers while scoring just five second-quarter points.

How good is Mt. Carmel? Leading scorer and Northwestern signee Angelo Ciaravino missed the game with a hip injury, and Mister was barely heard from in the second half. But the Caravan still won by 22, getting 20 points from Cameron Thomas and 13 from Grant Best and avidly contesting every shot and every pass the Lions tried to make.

Emanuel Walker led the hosts with 11 points. Stephen Barze and freshman Brian Kizer scored seven apiece. 

How good is Mt. Carmel? Road games at Brother Rice (23-3, 5-1) on Friday and DePaul Prep (25-2, 6-0) on Tuesday stand between the Caravan and the Blue Division title. Who’s the best of the three?

Mt. Carmel has two big-time players, a share-the-ball mentality and defensive diligence, but lacks depth. Brother Rice does everything well and has plenty in its toolbox, but no marquee players. DePaul Prep plays suffocating defense and moves the ball, but lacks the surefire 20-point scorer who can go get a bucket whenever one is needed.

“I like DePaul,” Leo Coach Jamille Ridley said. “Defense and discipline. The two key building blocks.”

Leo wraps up the regular season at St. Ignatius (14-11, 1-4) on Friday. The Lions will be assigned to an IHSA Class 2-A Regional at either Julian or South Shore. The postseason schedule will be posted on the school web site as soon as it’s available. 

Lions Can’t Catch Up to Oak Lawn in the E.P. Shootout

By Dan McGrath

The South Suburban Red Conference which Oak Lawn (9-1, 18-6) is dominating this season is not as highly regarded as the Chicago Catholic League Blue in which Leo competes, so Coach Jamille Ridley expected the Spartans’ best shot in their meeting at the Evergreen Park Sunday Shootout.

“Beating a Catholic League Blue team would be a big deal for them,” he said.

The Lions (11-16, 1-5) made Oak Lawn work for it, trimming a 36-21 halftime deficit to 40-36 midway through the third period and remaining within striking distance thereafter. But as the Spartans were wrapping up a 68-61 victory, it was apparent that their guard line of Donte Montogomery and Corey Lee would be difference-makers on any team Leo has seen this season, irrespective of conference. 

Montgomery went for 25 points and Lee scored 20, controlling the game at both ends of the floor. They got to the basket with aplomb, and when Leo’s big men came out to contest, they slipped the ball to Kyle Brennan or Jack Dempsey for layups. Four points was as close as the Lions would get in the second half, despite another all-out effort.

“They beat us off the dribble too often and too easy,” Ridley said. “That’s my responsibility. We should have been in the gym yesterday, but I thought we needed the rest and we didn’t practice. We came out sluggish and they jumped us.”

Marlo Moore kept the Lions in it with 11 points in the first half, finishing with a team-high 18. Stephen Barze’s 13 points all came in the second half. Neil Anderson worked maniacally to score nine, and with designated shooter Emanuel Walker in foul trouble, freshman Brandon Gandy got some minutes and scored eight points.

The Lions will attempt to play spoiler by knocking Mount Carmel (25-3, 5-0) from the top spot in the CCL Blue when they meet at Leo on Tuesday. The regular season wraps with a game at St. Ignatius (14-11, 1-4) on Friday.

The Revival of Leo Wrestling Continues at an Accelerated Pace

By Dan McGrath

The revival of Leo wrestling continues at an accelerated pace.

With junior Nick Armour leading the way at 285 pounds, the Lions placed second in the 10-team IHSA Class 1-A Regional at Chicago Military Academy Bronzeville on Saturday, Feb. 3. Eight Leo wrestlers finished third or better to advance to Sectional competition at Quest Multisport Center on Feb. 10-11, the Lions’ best showing since wrestling was restored as a varsity sport 10 years ago.

Leo accumulated 118 points to host Chicago Military Academy’s 176 points.

Armour pinned two opponents and won by disqualification over a third to finish first in the 285-pound weight class. Two weeks earlier he took third place in the Chicago Catholic League meet. With a 31-4 record, Armour has been one of the most accomplished wrestlers in the Chicago area this year. He’s also an All-Conference Catholic League Red Division defensive lineman and made Academic All-State for maintaining a GPA of 3.2 or higher. 

Joining Armour as a regional champion was freshman Vandell Dudley, who pinned all three opponents in the 126-pound weight class. Freshman Byron Lee (106 pounds), sophomore Taylor Atkins (157 pounds) and freshman Jubril Kannike (165 pounds) achieved second-place finishes, while sophomores Aiden Bright (138 pounds) and Venson Jones (150 pounds) and junior Amir Abdul-Shakur (215 pounds) advanced by way of third-place finishes.

The future looks bright for a hard-working squad that includes no seniors, only two juniors and the rest freshmen and sophomores.

On Jan. 27, the Lions finished eighth at the 16-team Catholic League frosh-soph meet at Brother Rice, outperforming such larger, known-for-wrestling schools as Loyola Academy, De La Salle and DePaul Prep.

“I’m really proud of our guys,” Assistant Coach Mike Anderson said. “For some of them, this is the first time they’ve ever wrestled and to do as well as they have is a reward for how hard they have worked.” 

Third-place finishes by Dudley at 126 pounds and Jones at 150 pounds helped the Lions collect 80 points as a team. Kannike and fellow freshman Lucas Villanova placed fifth at 175 and 215 pounds, respectively, while Taylor Atkins was sixth at 165 pounds.

Host Brother Rice was a runaway winner of the meet with 284.5 points, followed by Mt. Carmel (193), St. Rita (167.5), Fenwick (164), Montini (131), St. Ignatius (104.5), Providence Catholic (90) and Leo. 

Congratulations, Jim Earner

Jim Earner, Leo’s Vice President for Business Affairs, integral part of the management team and longtime wrestling official, has been selected to work the IHSA state wrestling finals at the University of Illinois’ State Farm Center in Champaign on February 18 and 19.

Mr. Earner also was given regional and sectional assignments leading up to the state meet. Officials earn these assignments based on how they are rated by coaches and meet directors over the course of a season.

Mr. Earner wrestled competitively at Brother Rice. He has worked the teams competition at the state meet before, but in an officiating career spanning 30-plus years, this will be his first time officiating individual matches.

His Leo colleagues salute Jim for a most worthwhile honor.   

Lions Have a Tough Time at Loyola

By Dan McGrath

Coming off two semi-disheartening, coulda/woulda/shoulda losses to St. Francis de Sales and Riverside-Brookfield,  Leo Coach Jamille Ridley wanted nothing more than to “pop” Loyola Academy with an upset in a Catholic League Blue Division matchup in Wilmette Friday night.

Didn’t happen, but not for Leo’s lack of effort. Playing the perpetual-motion offense and vice-grip-tight defense that have been their hallmarks forever, the Ramblers ground out a 58-37 victory. 

With two state-champion football players among its starters, Loyola (23-5 overall, 3-3 Catholic League Blue) was a little too big, a little too strong and a little too old —its senior-dominated lineup is comfortably accustomed to playing together, while the young Lions are in Year 2 of a scorched-earth rebuild.

“Played them up here last year and they smoked us—running clock,” Ridley recalled. “Tonight, we competed. We played hard and held our own. We’re getting there. And if we trust the process, we’ll get there.”

The Lions have seen quite enough of Loyola senior sharpshooter Miles Boland, who outscored them (10-9) by himself in the first quarter on his way to a game-high 17 points. Boland would manage seven over the remaining three periods, but the Ramblers are an equal-opportunity offense and three other double-figures scorers would make sure their 33-20 halftime lead was never seriously threatened.

Andrew Hollerich scored 13 points, Brendan Loftus (a football recruit as a tight end) had 12 and Daniel Birmingham provided 10 off the bench.

Leo (11-15, 1-4 CCL Blue) got 16 points and a strong all-around game from junior Stephen Barze, and nine points from Emanuel Walker. Good shots are so hard to come by against Loyola’s miserly defense that you have to make more than 27 percent of your attempts. And you can’t further burden yourself with 13 turnovers and 9-of-16 free-throw shooting. 

“No one in this room should be sad or disappointed or hanging their heads,” Ridley said. “Of course you’re disappointed when you lose, but that’s a quality, veteran team that’s just better than us right now. But we’ll get there. If we continue to compete, put the work in and trust the process, we’ll get there.”

Next up for the Lions: Oak Lawn (17-6, 9-1 in the South Suburban Conference) in the Evergreen Park Shootout on Sunday. Game time is 3 p.m. 

Lions Show Improvement Against Riverside-Brookfield

By Dan McGrath

Football sage Bill Parcells is credited with suggesting, “You are what your record says you are,” as a measure of a team’s relative merits.

In that context, Leo (11-13) vs. Riverside-Brookfield (20-3) on Wednesday night looked like a mismatch.

At Riverside-Brookfield, no less, with the Lions coming off their most disappointing performance of the season, a 43-41 loss to St. Francis de Sales at home.

For a quarter and a half, it looked like a reversal of roles. Leo buried four first-quarter three-pointers, set up a defensive perimeter around 6-foot-11 Stefan Civic and raced out to what became a nine-point lead (24-15) at the midway point of the second quarter.

But a fullcourt press seemed to discombobulate the Lions and take them out of their rhythm. The three-point shots stopped dropping, and worse, Civic began asserting himself inside, with abundant help from guards Steven Brown and Mehki Austin.

R-B closed the half on an 11-0 run for a 26-24 halftime lead that would grow to 12 points early in the fourth quarter. But the Lions never stopped coming, never stopped competing, and the Bulldogs knew they’d been in a game as they left their snazzy gym with a 62-54 victory.

“Better effort, better attitude tonight,” Coach Jamille Ridley said. “Nothing to complain about, no reason to hang our heads. We competed. But they had something you don’t see too often in high school—a 6-11 guy.”

Stivic went for 20 points with seven rebounds, three blocks and a whole bunch of discouraged shots, but the officiating was complicit in his dominance. He set up long enough in the lane to be charged rent, but not once was he called for a three-second violation. And once he realized he had free rein, he muscled over or through any defender who tried to impede him, yet was called for just one offensive foul.

“We’re just not used to that size,” Ridley said.

Brown and Austin, both seniors, combined for 38 points and were a little stronger, a little quicker and a little more savvy than Leo’s youthful guard line. Brown, who has a rather high opinion of himself, scored a game-high 23 points and Austin contributed a less flamboyant 15.

Three players, in other words, were responsible for 58 of R-B’s 62 points.

Leo had seven players score, with Marlo Moore matching his season high with 20, including four three-pointers. Emanuel Walker scored 11 and Karon Shavers and Stephen Barze had nine apiece.

Frying pan, meet fire: The Lions are off to Loyola Academy for the resumption of Catholic League Blue play on Friday night. The Ramblers are 20-5 overall and 2-3 in the CCL, their losses coming to heavyweights Mt. Carmel, Brother Rice and DePaul Prep. “They’ll defend to the death and they’ll pass the ball 20 times before they take a shot, so you just have to stay with them,” Ridley said.

The anticipated matchup turned him philosophical.

“Anything that’s even been good in history is good because it’s consistent—Coke, McDonald’s, Nike—good because they’re consistent,” Ridley said. “If we’re consistent with our effort and attitude, we can be good, too.

“So I told the guys, ‘Let’s put forth the effort and attitude and concentration we had tonight and go up there and pop Loyola.’ We pop Loyola, that would open some eyes.”

Lions Don’t Get Past De Sales, 43-41

By Dan McGrath

Some things just aren’t meant to be in life, and a .500 record for the Leo Lions in this season of basketball rebuilding apparently is one of them.

Mired in the muck of a 3-10 record five weeks ago, the Lions brought an 11-12 mark into Tuesday night’s Catholic League crossover with St. Francis de Sales at Leo. Home game, 6-15 opponent, .500 within reach  … what could go wrong?

Plenty. Pile 24 turnovers atop 33-percent shooting and slow-moving defense and you don’t really give yourself a chance, even against a squad that played hard, but not particularly well.

De Sales led nearly all the way and escaped 43-41, outscoring the Lions 7-2 in the final 1:54 after Leo had overcome itself to take a 39-36 lead. But that final 1:54 was a nightmare.

After de Sales’ Tanzy James split two free throws, Leo threw away an inbounds pass which Eric Johnson ran down and converted into a game-tying layup. Emanuel Walker missed from the deep corner, and when Leo failed to get back on defense, Johnson got loose for another layup and a 41-39 Pioneers lead.

The Lions promptly muffed the inbounds play, turned it over and fouled Johnson in desperation. He was money, and the lead was four.

Marlo Moore was fouled while muscling in a shot that Leo claimed was a three-pointer with seven seconds left. It was not, but Moore would have had a three-point play if he’d made the free throw. He did not, and 43-41 stood as the final when Karon Shavers was wide with a jumper after a de Sales turnover gave Leo one final chance.

Stephen Barze had one of his best games of the season for the Lions with 13 hard-earned points, and Nate Stephens had seven rebounds and three blocks to go with his four points. Six of Moore’s team-high 10 points came in the final 1:16 for de Sales.

Coach Jamille Ridley sent the team home immediately on a school night, saying he’d speak to them on Wednesday, before the Lions depart for Riverside-Brookfield. That ought to be interesting; the Bulldogs are 20-3 and unbeaten in the Metro Suburban Conference.

In fact, Leo’s five remaining opponents are a combined 92-27 for a .773 winning percentage. And to think, .500 looked pretty good there for a minute.

Lions Recover Against Michele Clark

By Dan McGrath

The Leo Lions had a mere 14 hours to recover from perhaps their most punishing beatdown of the season.

After getting clobbered 62-23 at Catholic League powerhouse DePaul Prep Friday night, the Lions traveled to Richton Park for an 11 a.m. tipoff against Michele Clark on Saturday in the Breast Cancer Awareness Shootout at Rich Township High School.

A thing of beauty it was not—playing on understandably heavy legs, Leo shot 22 percent through three quarters, missed 15 of 18 free throws and resisted rebounding as if it were a communicable disease.

And yet a 34-26 victory goes into the books, in part because Clark (11-11), which also played on Friday and had transportation issues getting to the game, endured its own struggles—seven of 28 free-throw shooting, for starters.

“I know it wasn’t pretty or artistic, but to bounce back and win after getting punched in the mouth the way we did—that’s character,” Coach Jamille Ridley said. “I’m proud of our guys. They showed me something.”

Emanuel Walker flipped in three three-pointers for a team-high nine points, and freshman Karon Shavers matched him despite going 0-for-6 at the foul line. Marlo Moore’s six points were especially meaningful—they featured a buzzer-beating bucket after the Lions held the ball for the final shot of the third quarter, followed by a three-point play that gave Leo an insurmountable nine-point lead early in the fourth. 

After opening the season 3-10, the Lions (11-12) have a chance to reach the .500 mark when they host St. Francis de Sales (5-15, 1-7) on Tuesday.

“Sunday,” Ridley said, “is a day off. We need rest.” 

And more time to heal from the beating they took at DePaul Prep, the defending Class 2-A state champions who improved to 20-2 overall and remained unbeaten in Catholic League play.

“That is a good basketball team, a serious basketball team,” Ridley said. “They play hard, they play together and they execute. We can all learn from how well they execute, including me.” 

It was Senior Night for the Rams, and Jaylan McElroy, a lithe 6-foot-6 senior who has been bedeviling the Lions since DePaul Prep was Gordon Tech, might have been expected to go out and score 30. 

Nope. He settled for six points, but he rebounded and defended like a demon and was easily one of the most impactful players on the floor without scoring a bunch. 

He had help from Rashaun Porter, an intimidating 6-6 sophomore who will be a handful for Catholic League opponents over the next two years. Porter muscled his way  to 11 points, all in the first half, but his greatest contribution was teaming with McElroy to deny the Lions any semblance of an inside game. 

Thus they were forced to fire away from distance all evening. Walker hit two three-pointers among the 10 or so he launched and was Leo’s leading scorer with six points. None of the other Lions managed more than four points. 

De Sales comes in with a 5-15 record, but there’s an emotional overtone to the game. Two years ago, on its way to Catholic League, regional and sectional titles, Leo ran up the score on the outnammed Pioneers in rather inhumane fashion. DeSales refashioned its roster with transfers and reciprocated with a satisfying 67-55 win at Leo last season, so Tuesday’s game is something of a rubber match.

“We’ll be ready,” Ridley said. “We’ll only have one day of practice, but we’ll be ready.”