Lions to play in the Chicago Christian Sub-Regional on Thursday, May 16

by Dan McGrath

Freed at last from the rigors of Chicago Catholic League competition, Leo will go for a third straight IHSA Class 2-A regional championship when it opens play in the Chicago Christian Sub-Regional on Thursday, May 16 against Corliss.

The Lions (6-20) are seeded No. 3 in the 10-team field behind host Chicago Christian (13-12) and University High (8-8), which is hosting its own sub-regional. The regional winner advances to the following week’s 2-A Sectional at Beecher.  

CISC Longwood and Hansberry will open the regional on Monday, May 13 at 4:30 p.m. The winner faces Chicago Christian on Wednesday at 4:30.

Leo vs. Corliss on Thursday, also at 4:30 p.m., features a rematch with a team the Lions drubbed 22-1 back on March 20. Corliss is 1-14 this season, it’s only victory coming against Englewood STEM. 

The Game 2 and Game 3 winners will meet for the regional title at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 11. All games will be played at Chicago Christian’s Schaaf Fields, 6100 W. College Drive, Palos Heights.

A 13-2 loss to De La Salle in its regular-season finale on May 6 left the Lions with 10 days to prepare for regional play.

“Time to get our pitching in order,” Coach Mike Anderson said. “We just didn’t have enough arms to compete in the Catholic League, and it really caught up with us as the season wore on. But we’ll be ready for the playoffs, no question.”

The Academy of St. Benedict the African: Flag Football Champs

by Dan McGrath

The Academy of St. Benedict the African is the Alabama of Leo’s Jr. Flag Football program. 

Just as the Crimson Tide has dominated college football for the better part of the last decade, St. Ben’s has dominated Leo’s flag football league for elementary schools, taking the title in each of the last three sessions after finishing as runner-up to S. Sabina in the first session.

St. Ben’s downed HIATT of Merrillville, IN., 24-14 in the Spring ’24 title game at Leo’s Alumni Field on Saturday, May 4. St. Ben’s (4-2) finished second to Barbara Sizemore (5-1) during the regular season, but rolled through the playoffs while Sizemore was losing to HIATT (2-4) in the playoff semifinals.

St. John De La Salle (3-3) and Burke Elementary (0-6) were this session’s other entries.

Just as Alabama lost Hall of Fame Coach Nick Saban after last season, St. Ben’s is losing its Principal at the conclusion of the school year. Jennifer Farrand is relocating to Pittsburgh, where her husband Mike has accepted a job transfer. Mrs. Farrand has been both a great principal and a good friend to Leo, and we wish her well in her new adventure. 

Lions Baseball Hits a Rough Patch

By Dan McGrath

By Dan McGrath

That five-game winning streak that got the Leo baseball season off to such a promising start seems like a distant memory.

The streak ended with a 13-5 loss at Lindblom, a Class 3-A regional champion last season. A two-game trip to Central Illinois resulted in losses to Brimfield (7-4) and Bushnell-Prairie City (6-4).

The onset of Catholic League play was a disaster: Brother Rice pushed across 17 runs in the first inning of a 21-0 wipeout in the CCL opener that was halted by the slaughter rule after 3 ½ innings at Rice on Monday, April 8. A day later, Providence Catholic almost duplicated the feat, burying the Lions 20-0 in a four-inning mercy killing at the Kroc Center.

A trip to Kerry Wood Field on the North Side offered no relief; DePaul Prep erupted for 13 runs in the first inning and pounded out an 18-3 victory on Thursday, April 11. Aiden Lott’s three-run double was the lone Leo highlight.

“As the competition gets better, our lack of pitching depth really gets exposed,” Coach Mike Anderson said.

So does a lack of consistent offense. After exploding for 79 runs during the winning streak, the Lions managed just 16 runs in their six losses, none in the first two Catholic League games, though it’s worth noting that Rice and Providence are perennially top-tier CCL teams.

It’s back to the CCL grind on Saturday, April 13 and a visit to St. Francis in Wheaton. St. Francis returns the favor with a visit to the Kroc Center on Monday, April 15, followed by a home-and-home with Marmion and a trip to Aurora Central Catholic to close out the week.

“I’m hopeful we’ll hit better when we get consistently better weather,” Anderson said.

Leo Alumni and Varsity Basketball Players Entertain

By Dan McGrath

On Final Four Sunday, the first Alumni Game between the current Leo varsity and alums from as far back as 2009 resulted in a highly entertaining 72-65 victory for the old guys. They led by as many as 18, and watching Malcolm Bell ’18 and Chris Lockhart ’09 shoot the lights out while Darius Branch ’16 conducted a ball-handling clinic was a fun reminder of how much good basketball I’ve been fortunate to watch over 14 years at Leo.

But as Emanuel Walker, Brian Kizer and Karon Shavers brought the young Lions back in the second half, I got a sense that Leo’s basketball future just might be as bright as its past.

Most of the alums stuck around for a barbecue lunch afterwards. They know they’re always welcome at Leo. 

A Hot Start for Our Baseball Team

By Dan McGrath

Coach Mike Anderson viewed the opener on March 13 as indicative of how the 2024 baseball season might go for the Leo Lions. 

Playing “small ball” throughout, the Lions pushed across four runs in the top of the seventh inning and beat Public League campaigner Kennedy 6-2 at Kennedy’s Wentworth Park field. 

“That’s got to be our formula – pitching and defense and scratch out runs,” Anderson said. “We don’t have a lot of big hitters, so we’ll have to create scoring opportunities and take advantage.”

Imagine his surprise, then, when the Lions ran their winning streak to five with victories over Christ the King, Bogan, Corliss and Hillcrest by such non-small-ball scores as 16-0, 16-1, 22-1 and 19-0.

Of course, none of those teams ranks anywhere near the top echelon of high school baseball in the Chicago area. And Lindblom, a Class 3-A Regional champion last season, put an end to the winning streak and brought the Lions back to reality with a 13-5 victory at Lindblom on March 27.

But a 5-1 start was an encouraging sign for a young, rebuilding team that knows what it will be up against in the ever-competitive Chicago Catholic League. 

Leo’s 2023 squad that claimed a Class 2-A regional title and a win over Catholic League champion Brother Rice featured seven seniors: shortstop Joaquin Huerta, center fielder Mitchell Hall,  three-year starters Matthew Hernandez and Esai Jacinto and two-year mainstays Nate Sims, Kyrent Cole and Amare Hall.

This year’s team has one senior, first baseman Clyde Akins. But most of the sophomores and juniors who are filling out the roster have grown up playing baseball, unlike in past seasons, when Anderson and his staff were trying to teach the basics of the game at the high-school level while competing in the Catholic League.

“We’ll go as far as our pitching takes us,” Anderson said.

Sophomore Derrick Davis threw eight innings of one-run ball with 15 strikeouts in beating Kennedy and Hillcrest. He had two of the Lions’ 16 hits with two RBIs in the Hillcrest game. Juniors Aiden Lott, Ian Dunn and Marshawn Durr also drove in two runs apiece, with Dunn scoring three times.

Sophomore Michael Lewis got the start against Corliss and went the distance in a game that was halted after four innings by the mercy rule. Durr, Eddie Hernandez and Derrion Anderson had two hits apiece. 

Hernandez’s bases-clearing triple was the big blow for Leo in the Christ the King game. Dunn was 2-for-2 with four RBIs and sophomore Devin Vassel went  2-for-3 with three RBIs.

The Lions managed 10 hits against Lindblom, two each by Vassel and sophomore Fred Chandler. Lott had a two-run single.

A trip to the Peoria area for games with Bushnell and Prairie City on April 6 will be Leo’s final tuneup for Catholic League play, which begins with a game at defending league champion Brother Rice on Monday, April 8.

Fred Cleveland ’19, Stars in the HBCU All Star Game

Not to take anything away from South Carolina’s win over the Iowa Caitlins in the NCAA women’s championship game, but Sunday, April 7 was a pretty good day for Leo High School basketball as well.

In Phoenix, Fred Cleveland Jr. ’19 started for Team Rick Mahorn in the HBCU All-Star Game and scored 20 points in a 108-97 loss to Team Ben Wallace. Fred’s total included six three-pointers. We heartily concur with TV commentator Avery Johnson’s suggestion that “Fred’s in range when he gets off the bus.”

Fred was one of the most decorated basketball players in Leo history over his two varsity seasons including All-Area, All-City, two-time All-Catholic League for a Lions team that reached the Class 2-A Supersectional. A 5-foot-9 senior guard at North Carolina Central, he continued to distinguish himself as a collegian, winning the Sam Jones Award as HBCU Player of the Year after leading the Central Eagles in scoring (15.3 points per game), minutes (33 per game) and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in assists (5.3 per game).

Fred, a first-team HBCU All-American, was named winner of the Sam Jones Award as HBCU Division I Player of the Year. The Sam Jones Award is named for the late Boston Celtics great who was a five-time NBA All-Star and a 10-time NBA champion, second only to teammate Bill Russell, who won 11 titles. Sam Jones also played at North Carolina Central.

Central was 9-5 in the conference, good for second place, and 18-13 overall. The season ended with an upset loss to Norfolk State in the MEAC tournament.

Fred was a true student-athlete at Leo, graduating as the salutatorian for the Class of 2019. Younger brother Cameron, completing his sophomore year at Morehouse College, was valedictorian for the Class of ’22. The Leo family salutes the Cleveland family as they continue to make us proud. 

Baseball Lions Start the Season Strong

By Dan McGrath

The opener on Wednesday, March 13 may well have been indicative of how the 2024 baseball season will go for Leo the Lions. Or how they hope it will go

Playing “small ball” and reasonably clean ball throughout, the Lions pushed across four runs in the top of the seventh inning and beat Public League campaigner Kennedy 6-2 at Kennedy’s Wentworth Park field. 

“That’s got to be our formula – pitching and defense and scratch out runs,” Coach Mike Anderson said. “We don’t have a lot of big hitters, so we’ll have to create scoring opportunities and take advantage.”

Leo’s 2023 squad that claimed a Class 2-A regional title and a win over Catholic League champion Brother Rice featured seven seniors: shortstop Joaquin Huerta, center fielder Mitchell Hall,  three-year starters Matthew Hernandez and Esai Jacinto and two-year mainstays Nate Sims, Kyrent Cole and Amare Hall.

This year’s team has one senior, first baseman Clyde Akins. But most of the sophomores and juniors who will fill out the roster have grown up playing baseball, unlike in past seasons, when Anderson and his staff were trying to teach the basics of the game at the high-school level while competing in the always-tough Catholic League.

Sophomore Derrick Davis will anchor the pitching staff along with junior Aiden Lott, who was needed behind the plate for the opener. So Davis got the start and worked five strong innings, allowing only an unearned run while striking out six.

Lott also was nicked for an unearned run pitching the sixth and seventh. Shortstop Ian Dunn moved behind the plate to catch him, with Davis taking over at short. Such roster maneuverability will be an asset as the season progresses.

Leo took a 2-1 lead in the third inning on sophomore Devin Vassel’s double, Lott’s single and Akins’ two-run double to deep right field.

Two walks, an error and a wild pitch produced a game-tying unearned run for Kennedy in the bottom of the sixth, and then “small ball” was the story of Leo’s four-run seventh.

Three walks loaded the bases, and Lott’s high-bounding infield single scored two when Kennedy’s infielders had trouble corralling the ball. Vassel then scored on a throwing error, and Lott steamed around from second with the final run on a routine grounder to third base,

“It’s always nice to get a ‘W,’ but it’s especially sweet on Opening Day,” Anderson said.

The Lions will try to make it two in a row in a nonconference game against  Christ the King at 2 p.m. Saturday, March 16 at Columbus Park, 500 S. Central, Chicago. 

Lions Are Regional Champs!

By Dan McGrath

Regional champs—has a nice ring to it, does it not?

It surely does for the Leo basketball team.

After 18 months as inadvertent victims of unfortunate turmoil, the Lions can point to a Class 2-A Regional title as a sign of undeniable progress, earning the plaque Friday night with a 45-39 victory over host Julian in the championship game of the Julian Regional.

It’s on to the Corliss Sectional for Leo (13-19) and a first-round matchup with Phillips (20-9) on Tuesday, Feb. 27 at 6 p.m. Hansberry (19-11) and Dyett (14-11) are the other Corliss Sectional participants.

“I’m proud of the guys,” Coach Jimalle Ridley said. “We probably made it a little harder than it needed to be, but we stuck with it, we competed, and everybody who had a role to play played it.”

For a time the Leo made it look easy—an active halfcourt trap bothered the Jaguars into 12 first-half turnovers as the Lions led 17-6 after a quarter and 27-8 with three minutes left in the half.

But nothing comes easy for a team with four freshmen in its rotation and nary a senior on its roster. All of a sudden the Lions got tentative and uncertain with the ball and forgot how to rebound, enabling Julian to close the half on a 9-0 run for 27-17 at the intermission.

Leo seemed unnerved by the swarming, pick-a-man-and-harass-him defensive tactics the Jaguars employed in the third quarter—they forced six Leo turnovers, outscored the Lions 15-5 and pulled even at 32-all on Orlando Morris’ buzzer-beating three-pointer.

But Leo regained its equilibrium by attacking the basket as the fourth quarter opened. Stephen Barze powered his way to two layups and the Lions made five of six free throws during a 9-0 run that gave them some breathing room. The feisty Jaguars (23-6) kept coming, but they lacked the firepower to erase the deficit once the Lions determined to take better care of the ball while playing an effective delay game. 

Thirty-two of Leo’s 45 points came from freshmen as Nate Stephens delivered a monster game with 14 points, six rebounds and four blocks. Barze, a junior,  collected six of his eight points in the fourth quarter and helped control things underneath with five rebounds. 

Julian got 13 points from guard Cyrus Jones. Twenty turnovers proved to be the Jaguars’ undoing.

Phillips will be a handful, having won the King Regional after finishing fourth in the Public League’s uber-competitive Red South Central against the likes of Curie, Kenwood and Simeon. Hansberry, the top seed in the sectional, won the South Shore Regional, while Dyett prevailed at Dunbar.

“We’ll be ready,” Ridley vowed. “It’s an honor to still be playing this time of year, and we want to keep playing.”

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.