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.