Montini Victorious Over Lions 38-14

By Dan McGrath

Cole Teschner, a senior three-year starter for Montini’s Broncos, put on a quarterbacking clinic against Leo at St.Rita’s Cronin Field on Friday, Sept. 23.

Darion Lee, a Leo sophomore in his first varsity season, watched closely and nearly matched him throw for throw.

But Teschner was working with more complementary weapons, and that was the difference as Montini improved to 3-2 with a 38-14 victory in a Catholic League/East Suburban Catholic Conference crossover game.

A fourth straight loss dropped the Lions to 1-4.

Teschner completed 15 of 22 passes for 254 yards and four touchdowns, three of them to speedy sophomore BJ Searcy, including a 46-yarder on Montini’s first offensive play of the evening. Exploiting a breakdown in the Leo secondary, Searcy dashed up the field untouched and unencumbered, giving Montini a lead it would never relinquish 2-½ minutes into the game.

Lee was 18-for-31 for 233 yards and two scores, a 19-yarder to senior Coby Triplett and a 26-yarder to junior Dennis Jones, the first career touchdown for each receiver. Triplett finished with a career-best five catches for 66 yards, while fellow senior Merrick Sample caught six passes for 84 yards.

But once again, the absence of a running game—eight carries produced 15 yards—put too much of the offensive burden on Lee. Alternating a strong pass rush with seven and eight-man coverage schemes, the Broncos intercepted him twice and turned both takeaways into points while playing turnover-free football themselves.

Meanwhile, junior running back Alex Marre was an effective counterpoint to Teschner, piling up 94 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries. Another weapon: kicker Cole Stumbaugh, who booted a 42-yard field goal and five PAT’s while booming four of seven kickoffs out of the end zone.

With four games remaining, Leo faces the daunting prospect of winning out to have a shot at the IHSA playoffs, beginning with a nonconference Homecoming game against Thornton of Harvey on Friday, Sept. 30. Kickoff at St. Rita’s Cronin Field is at 7 p.m.       

Lions Lose to DePaul 14 to 12

As the 2022 football season progresses, the sting of a 14-12 loss to DePaul College Prep’s Rams is likely to linger for the Leo Lions.

The Friday, Sept. 16 meeting at DePaul was a winnable game that the Lions didn’t win. Instead, a third straight setback left them with a 1-3 record and in need of four wins in their five remaining regular-season games to secure a playoff berth, Leo’s first since 2013.

That’s a tall order against a schedule that includes Montini (2-2), Thornton (0-4), Nazareth (1-3), Marmion (2-2) and Rich Township (2-2).

Kevin Jackson didn’t have a touchdown reception after catching six TD passes in Leo’s first three games, but he returned an interception—one of his two in the game—for a 65-yard score that gave the Lions a 12-0 second-quarter lead. 

Leo’s first touchdown came on Javon Logan’s seven-yard run: The sophomore running back had 52 yards on eight carries as Leo ran for a season-best 77 yards, but six pass completions (in 16 attempts) produced only 36 yards. Meanwhile, the Lions negated nearly all that offense by being penalized 13 times for 101 yards, including four holding calls that were a factor in their scoreless second half.

DePaul controlled the clock with a running game that piled up 174 yards on 41 tries, a 4.2-yard average. Leo ran only 33 plays from scrimmage all evening.

Next up for Leo: Montini on Friday, Sept. 23 at St. Rita’s Cronin Field. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. 

Lions Fall to Carmel 42-12

One team ran the ball and one team didn’t, and that fact pretty much encapsulates the Leo Lions’ 42-12 loss to Carmel-Mundelein in a Chicago Catholic League/East Suburban Catholic Conference crossover matchup at St. Rita’s Cronin Field on Saturday, Sept. 10.

Ten days after yielding 154 yards and six touchdowns to Marian Catholic sophomore Tyler Lofton, the Lions watched Carmel sophomore Donovan Dey pile up 104 yards on 15 carries with three touchdowns. Quarterback Johnathon Weber completed 14 of 22 passes for 158 yards and a touchdown and ran for an additional score, giving the Corsairs (3-0) admirable balance.

The Lions, on the other hand, had no semblance of a running game (minus-4 yards for the evening), putting the offensive onus entirely on sophomore QB Darion Lee. His 14 completions in 32 attempts produced 280 yards and an 80-yard touchdown to Kevin Jackson, but the embattled youngster also threw four interceptions as Carmel—emboldened by Leo’s non-existent ability to run the ball—used either a fierce pass rush or seven- and eight-man coverages to frustrate him.

Two lost fumbles made for a grand total of six Leo turnovers, which along with 86 penalty yards pretty much explains the 30-point final margin.

Jackson had three catches for 144 yards and a touchdown, his sixth of the season. Merrick Sample caught four passes for 59 yards. 

The Lions (1-2) will try to halt a two-game losing streak when they visit DePaul Prep (2-1) on Friday, Sept. 16. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. 

Lions Have a Disappointing Evening Against Marian

Given the physical disparities they faced in Thursday night’s Chicago Catholic League/East Suburban Catholic Conference crossover game with Marian Catholic, the Leo Lions needed to bring their ‘A’ game to Chicago Heights to stand a chance.

Didn’t happen. The Spartans (2-0) were bigger, faster, stronger and deeper, rolling to a 55-21 victory behind a road-grader offensive line that enabled sophomore running back Tyler Lofton to amass 154 yards on 13 carries with six touchdowns, on runs of 25, 1, 13, 62, 2 and 5 yards.

Slick quarterback Kyle Thomas (13 carries, 71 yards) scored on a 2-yard run and hauled down a 7-yard TD pass from his backup, Carter Magerski.

Marian had 10 possessions and produced eight touchdowns, a missed field goal and an end-of-game kneeldown its only “failures.” The Spartans completed just one pass all evening, that coming in the fourth quarter, but why bother throwing when a running game is running up 300-plus yards and averaging 6.7 yards per play? 

Then again, the four pass-interference calls that went against the Lions were as good as completions, resulting in 60 of the 100 penalty yards assessed to them. Factor in a litany of muffed kicks, bad snaps, missed tackles and three turnovers and it was an all-around bad experience on a deceptively pleasant late-summer evening.

And bad got worse with a Leo player’s accusation that a Marian opponent directed a racial slur at him. 

With no running game to concern them—Leo had one net yard to show for seven carries—Spartan defenders were free to come full bore after sophomore quarterback Darion Lee, and they did. On the rare occasions he was given time to throw, Lee completed nine of 22 for 172 yards and TD passes of 33 yards to Merrick Sample and 22 yards to Kevin Jackson.

Matthew Harvey relieved the battered youngster in the fourth quarter and hooked up with Tim Durr for an 80-yard TD on a screen pass to complete the scoring. 

Next for the Lions: Carmel of Mundelein, coached by former Chicago Bear Jason McKie, in another CCL/ESCC crossover game at St. Rita’s Cronin Field at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 10. It has to be better. 

Lions Beat Bulls Academy in First Game of the Season

By Dan McGrath

As debuts go, Darion Lee’s on behalf of the Leo Lions was one for the record books.

The sophomore quarterback completed 11 of 15 passes for 358 yards and four touchdowns as Leo opened the 2022 season with a 32-6 nonconference thumping of Bulls Academy Charter on Saturday, August 27 at St. Rita’s Cronin Field.

Senior Kevin Jackson was on the receiving end of all four scoring throws, including a 99-yarder which Lee launched from the end zone one play after a gang-tackling goal-line stand thwarted Bulls Academy’s bid for a game-tying touchdown inside the 1-yard line midway through the final period.

“We knew they’d send everybody and try to get us in the end zone for a safety,” Coach Mike Holmes said of the longest play from scrimmage in school history. “Kevin had single coverage, and he just flew by the guy and Darion laid it out there for him.”

Leo’s lead grew to 19-6 as Jackson raced into the end zone untouched, and the admirable resolve the visitors had shown to that point seemed to dissipate. Lee and Jackson hooked up for a 40-yard score on the Lions’ next possession, and sophomore Javon Logan’s 26-yard burst set up his own two-yard TD run to close out the scoring.

The Lions built their 13-6 halftime lead on Lee’s 72- and 38-yard TD strikes to Jackson, who finished with five catches for 260 yards. He also made an end-zone interception to turn the Bulls away after they had burned more than 11 minutes off the third-quarter clock on a drive that featured 11 straight running plays.

Leo then lost a fumble on first down from its own 20-yard line, meaning the Lions owned the ball for exactly one play in the third period. The Bulls then drove to the Leo 1 in seven plays, but a swarm of Lions stopped Kameron Poynter just short as he ran wide right on fourth down, setting up the Lee-to-Jackson record-breaker.

Christian Bankston completed seven of 15 passes for 98 yards and the game’s first  touchdown, a 39-yarder to a wide open Kameron Poynter, in the first quarter. Jaden Poynter’s 15 carries produced 79 yards for the Bulls.

“It’s nice to be 1-0, but we’ve got a lot of work to do, a lot to clean up,” Holmes said, referring specifically to 70 penalty yards and a running game that produced just eight yards in the first three quarters. “We’ll have to be better to beat Marian Catholic.”

The Chicago Catholic League/East Suburban Catholic Conference opener for both teams will be played at Marian Catholic on Thursday, Sept. 1 at Marian Catholic.  The Spartans are also 1-0 following a 41-14 nonconference road win at Thornwood.

Football Preview

By Dan McGrath

How well the new blends with the old will determine the football fate of the Leo Lions this season.

The opener is Saturday, Aug. 27, with a 3 p.m. kickoff vs. Bulls Academy Prep at St. Rita’s Cronin Field. The Lions were originally scheduled to open on the road, but an issue with the Bulls Prep playing field prompted a switch to St. Rita.

Veteran two-way performers Tim Durr, Kevin Jackson and Isiah Knox will provide Leo with valuable experience on both sides of the ball, Durr at running back/cornerback, Jackson at wide receiver/cornerback and Knox at fullback/linebacker.

Fellow senior Merrick Sample, younger brother of former Lions standout Tobias Sample, is a home-run threat as a receiver/kick returner, and senior Coby Triplett will run the routes that made Austin Ford such a vital part of the Lions’ offense last season. Juniors Garry Brown and Theauntae “House” Jones anchor the offensive line.

Junior Joshua Burke, a starter since his freshman season, moves from linebacker to defensive end, where he’ll pair up with sophomore Nick Armour.

But a lot is riding on the development of Darion Lee, a sophomore starter at quarterback. Coach Mike Holmes likes what he has seen of the youngster so far.

“He throws a nice ball, he understands the offense, and he’s learning to move around back there,” Holmes said.

An expert on movement is helping with the process. Aamir Holmes, Coach Holmes’ son, was known for his scrambling ability during a Lawless Award-winning career as Leo’s quarterback. The younger Holmes has joined the coaching staff and is working with quarterbacks Lee and Matthew Harvey.

“It’s asking a lot of a sophomore to play quarterback in the Catholic League, but we think Darion can handle it,” Mike Holmes said. “We’re doing all we can to get him 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.