Lions Fall to Loyola

By Dan McGrath

The Loyola  Academy Ramblers were a coaching manual come to life in their 50-37  Catholic League victory over the Leo Lions at Leo on Friday, February 26.

The Ramblers (8-3 overall, 5-1 Catholic League) embodied patience at both ends of the floor. They set hard picks. They made hard cuts. They disdained questionable shots. They moved, they moved, they moved, often running 20-plus seconds off the clock before even considering a shot. By the eighth or ninth time a Rambler broke to the basket, he was open for a layup.

On defense, they swarmed, playing a straight man-to-man but switching everything with help-and-recover tactics that stymied Leo. It wasn’t so much that the Lions shot poorly, it’s that they barely shot at all, squeezing off just 33 shots all night and hitting 15. Fourteen turnovers added to the hosts’ frustration on a night when the pace of the game suggested they could ill afford any. 

Leo shot just six free throws, converting three. The Ramblers were 13-for-16 at the line after some slap-happy Leo defense had them shooting bonus free throws early in the final period. 

Thirty-seven points represented both a season low and  a moral victory for Leo (3-4): Loyola had held its first 10 opponents to 34.7 points per game. The Lions were within two (18-16) at halftime, but managed just five points in the third quarter, coming up empty on 10 of 11 possessions at one stretch as the Ramblers sneaked away.

Scotty Dean’s game-high 19 points included three three-pointers and a 6-for-6 showing at the foul line. Fellow senior Jalen Axibal added 16 points for Loyola. 

Thirteen of Tyler Smith’s team-high 15 points came in the fourth quarter for Leo. Fellow sophomore Ja’keem Cole, Leo’s No. 2 scorer, managed eight points before limping off on a twisted ankle midway through the final period. He’ll have until Wednesday, March 3 to recover; Leo’s Monday, March 1 game at Mt. Carmel has been postponed because of COVID issues involving the Caravan.

Leo’s sophomore team saw its four-game winning streak halted as Loyola registered a 39-31 victory in the preliminary game. 

Lions Reach .500 in Turning Back Montini

By David Gross

The young Leo Lions basketball team showed some grit in reaching the .500 mark for the first time this season by turning back Montini 61-57 on Wednesday, Feb. 24 in the Lions Den.

Montini came into the game with a 1-5 record, but that’s deceiving: The Broncos’ previous opponents included such Catholic League powerhouses as Fenwick, Brother Rice, Mt. Carmel and St. Rita. Their lone victory, over Loyola Academy, suggests they have potential.

But Leo (3-3) forced Montini into 20 turnovers, offsetting 15 by the Lions. The Broncos also enjoyed a 32-21 rebounding advantage, including 12 offensive rebounds, but they couldn’t convert enough of those second-chance opportunities. They also missed nine free throws. 

Leo got another solid game from its young guard line of sophomores Ja’keem Cole and Tyler Smith and freshman Christian Brockett, and one of the night’s more encouraging developments was forward Rob Smith’s continued strong play inside. After establishing season-highs with 13 points and eight rebounds against Marmion on Monday, the 6-foot-2 junior came back with 16 points, eight rebounds and two blocks against Montini. 

Tyler Smith scored 12 points with five rebounds and four steals. Brockett also scored 12, on 5-for-9 shooting, with six rebounds and two steals, while Cole contributed 10 points, two rebounds and three steals. Junior Cameron Cleveland managed eight points after averaging 19 in the previous three games.

Forward Andrew Stokes led Montini with 16 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks. 

Leo’s sophomore team improved to 4-1 with a two-point victory over Montini’s sophs, 49-47.

With a freshman, two sophomores and three juniors in the rotation, the young Lions are clearly improving and building some momentum with three wins in their last four games.

Now comes the hard part: Loyola at home on Friday, Feb. 26, followed by road games at Mount  Carmel (March 1), Fenwick (March 3) and Brother Riace (March 5). The St. Joe’s game, postponed earlier because the Chargers were in COVID quarantine, will be played at Leo on Saturday, March 6, with a 3 p.m. tip.

Lions Run Past Marmion 76-59

Leo basketball is still Leo basketball, and even with a young, undersized team composed of five new starters, there are nights when the Lions are simply going to out-talent an opponent. 

That was the case in Aurora on Monday, Feb. 22. All five starters scored in double figures as Leo (2-3) ran past Marmion Academy 76-59 in a Catholic League matchup. The Cadets (0-2) were playing only their second game after spending the first two weeks of this truncated season in COVID quarantine. They competed, but were clearly outmanned.  

Leo’s starting guard line of sophomore Ja’keem Cole (18), junior Cameron Cleveland (17) and sophomore Tyler Smith (12) combined for 47 points and were almost impervious to Marmion’s attempts at pressure defense, weaving through it to create one good shot after another.

But for the first time this season the Lions enjoyed an advantage up front as well as junior forward Rob Smith scored a career-best 13 points with eight rebounds and two blocks. Senior Kobe Roberts took down six rebounds with two blocks in limited minutes.

The most intriguing player on the floor, though, may well have been the youngest. Christian Brockett, a mere freshman, missed only one shot all night while scoring 14 points with seven rebounds, three assists and five steals. This after the 5-foot-11 guard had scored 27 points in leading the Leo sophomore team to a 46-38 victory over Marmion’s sophs in the preliminary game. 

“He has a chance to be a special player,” Leo Coach Jamal Thompson said.    

Meanwhile, the Lions have a chance to reach the .500 mark when they host Montini (1-5) at Leo on Wednesday, Feb. 24. Then the schedule turns into a minefield: Loyola at home, at Mount Carmel, at Fenwick, at Brother Rice.

“We’re a young team, but we’re playing hard and we’re learning,” Thompson said. “I definitely see progress.”   

Lions Fall to De La Salle

By Dan McGrath

The question that accompanied De La Salle High School’s Meteors to Leo for Saturday’s Catholic League makeup game against the Lions: How is this team winless?

The Meteors boast a college-sized front line featuring 6-foot-9 Marcelius Cohen, 6-7 Jamil Wilson and 6-5 Caleb Jenkins. The trio’s imposing length was surely a factor in Leo’s nightmare shooting performance (37 percent for the game, 5-for-23 on three-pointers) and its glaring inability to get an offensive rebound.

But the biggest reason—figuratively if not literally—behind De La Salle’s breakthrough effort was guard DaJuan Bates. The 5-11 junior was like a kid in a candy store in Leo’s cozy gym, erupting for 40 points in a 66-51 victory and taking it upon himself to shoot the Lions down each time they threatened.

“We let him go wherever he wanted and do whatever he wanted,” was Leo Coach Jamal Thompson’s on-the-money assessment.

Bates had 19 of De La Salle’s 30 points in the first half as the Meteors built a double-figures lead that withstood sophomore Ja’keem Cole’s late seven-point flurry. He left the heavy lifting to backcourt mate Miles McGee in a three-point third quarter, as if he were conserving his energy to turn back Leo’s final push.

Sure enough, the Lions’ press forced some turnovers and Cameron Cleveland began finding the range with his shot, and it was a 53-47 game with just under four minutes remaining. But Bates simply took over, scoring 18 in the quarter and 10 in a 13-4 run with which De La Salle closed it out.

His 40 included six three-pointers and a 6-for-6 showing at the free-throw line in the final period.

Cleveland finished with 20 points for the second straight game and Cole had 15 for Leo. It was a commendable effort, but Bates’ shooting and all that size were too much to overcome as Leo’s overmatched front line managed just six points total.

The teams were scheduled to play this game on Monday, Feb. 15, but snow forced the five-day postponement. The sophomore game will be made up later. Leo’s Friday, Feb. 19 game against St. Joe’s also was postponed because the Chargers are in COVID quarantine.

The Lions (1-3) are back in action Monday, traveling to Marmion for a 6:30 game. The Cadets were in COVID quarantine earlier and have played just one game, losing to Mt. Carmel.

Lions Roll Over Providence-St. Mel

By Dan McGrath

The Leo Lions aren’t likely to get much taller over the course of a six-week season, and the best they can do in terms of acquiring experience is 15 games. 

Thus size and youth loom as season-long challenges. 

But the guard-heavy roster is quick enough and deep enough to press like swarming, irritated hornets, which the Lions did in Wednesday night’s Catholic League exercise with Providence-St. Mel on the West Side. 

The Knights never knew what hit them. It was 23-7 after a quarter, 52-20 at the half and 88-45 at the finish as Leo (1-2) rolled to its first victory of this truncated season. 

Now the Knights (0-4) are not to be confused with Fenwick, DePaul Prep and the other aspirants to Catholic League royalty. But for one night at least, it was nice to see the Lions display the take-no-prisoners swagger that helped carry them to an average of 22 wins over the previous five seasons. 

And, for one night at least, Leo’s basketball future seemed as intriguing as its storied past. Underclassmen accounted for 87 of the Lions’ 88 points, with junior Cam Cleveland putting up an effortless 20 and the sophomore backcourt duo of Tyler Smith (18) and Ja’Keem Cole (17) combining for 35. 

But most of the good stuff came off the Leo press, which had the hosts talking to themselves and committing 15 turnovers before halftime. 

“Something to build on,” Coach Jamal Thompson said. “Easily our best game. We really got after it defensively.”  

Leo shot 14 free throws total in its first two games, hitting just three. The Lions shot 19 in Wednesday’s first half and 27 for the game, making 16 and remaining on the attack on offense throughout the evening. 

Leo’s sophomore team (2-1) made it a sweep for the evening, riding a 24-8 third-quarter burst to a 75-44 victory in the preliminary game. 

The Lions will have an extra day to savor their first win and make preparations for the next one. Friday’s home game with St. Joe’s has been postponed and will have to be rescheduled because the Chargers are In COVID quarantine. 

So Leo is back in action Saturday (Feb. 20), hosting De La Salle in a makeup for Monday’s snowed-out game. Tip-off is at 2 pm. 

Lions lose a heartbreaker to Providence

Jamal Thompson’s coaching mantra is succinct, forceful and time-tested: If we run our offense, we’ll get good shots. 

He knows that, without the inside muscle of the Anderson brothers and the outside firepower Fred Cleveland, Malcolm Bell and Terrance Ford gave Leo over the last four years, his smallish young Lions lack a dominant player and are dependent on constant movement—of the ball and of themselves—to create offensive opportunities.

Just 1:37 into a Catholic League matchup at Providence Catholic on Friday, Feb. 12, Thompson saw the same type of standing-around listlessness that had undone the Lions in a 24-point pasting by St. Ignatius in Monday’s season opener. So he called timeout and reminded them—loudly—that their effort was unsatisfactory.

Message delivered. What followed was 30 minutes of back-and-forth, highly entertaining basketball, played with an earnestness that more than made up for what it lacked in artistry. In the end, a familiar-looking combination of inside muscle (Hampton Dauparas) and outside firepower (Jack Wajda, Jimmy Arentz) was the difference.

Three-point shooting brought Providence back each time Leo threatened to pull away, and the Celtics won 52-50 when Arentz knocked down a three-ball from the deep corner with 17 seconds remaining. The Lions’ final possession was futile. Providence had two fouls to give before putting Leo in the one-and-one bonus and used them, leaving the Lions just seven seconds to make their last move. Ja’keem Cole, whose runner in the lane had put Leo up 50-49 a bit earlier, was swarmed when he drove the lane this time. Jamari Allen could do nothing with his desperation pass as the hulking Dauparas loomed over him, so the Lions didn’t get off a shot.

An unsatisfying end to an exemplary effort. Thompson could take heart from the fact that three juniors and two sophomores were on the floor at the end of the game, and a freshman gave him some meaningful minutes as well. So it’s likely there are better days ahead for the Lions (0-2), but there will be some bumps in the road to getting there. 

Sophomore Tyler Smith scored 12 points for the Lions. Junior Cameron Cleveland had 11. Allen, a 5-foot-11 junior with a linebacker’s body and a Lion’s heart, scored only three points but took down eight rebounds and made the 6-5 sophomore Dauparas work for the seven points he earned after blitzing the Lions with seven in the opening five minutes.

Junior Jack Wajda hit four of the Celtics’ eight three-pointers and finished with a game-high 17 points. Arentz made two three-pointers and scored 10.

The night was not a total loss for Leo; the sophomore team (1-1) used a 14-1 run in the third quarter to beat the Providence sophs 44-35 in the preliminary game. And the Lions have no time to feel sorry for themselves; they’re back at it on Monday, Feb. 15, facing De La Salle in their home opener. The sophomores tip off at 5, followed by the varsity game at 7. 

Lions fall to St. Ignatius in return to basketball

St. Ignatius has experience to augment its formidable size, length and quickness, which made the Wolfpack a tough opening-night matchup for a small, youngish team with five new starters and exactly one week of practice.

That would be the Leo Lions, and the 63-39 spanking they took from the Wolfpack at the eerily quiet St. Ignatius gym on Monday, Feb. 8 was indeed painful.

COVID restrictions delayed the start of the Catholic League basketball season by more than two months, and the restrictions remaining in place limited the “crowd” to a handful of school officials. If the atmosphere was reminiscent of a Saturday morning freshman game, the caliber of play went along with it, at least on the visitors’ side. 

Leo went with a five-guard alignment for much of the evening as Coach Jamal Thompson juggled bodies in search of a lineup that might mesh. Guards are not inclined to rebound, so the Lions took a pounding on the backboards, and it’s on them to prevent that from becoming a regular occurrence now that they’re playing without a voraciously rebounding Anderson brother for the first time in five years.

Worse, Leo exacerbated its rebounding indifference by failing to hustle back on defense, so A.J. Redd (16 points), Richard Barron (12) and Koby Gilles (12) frequently shot nothing more challenging than a layup in outscoring the Lions 40-39. 

Mix in 0-for-7 free-throw shooting, 2-for-15 three-point shooting and 17 turnovers and you have the recipe for a blowout. It was 20-8 after the first quarter, and it never got much closer. Sophomore Ja’keem Cole led the Lions with 10 points. 

Season opener or no, Thompson was unsparing in his criticism of his team’s shot selection and indifference to rebounding and defense. St. Francis de Sales’ decision not to play this season took Wednesday’s game off the schedule and left the Lions with three days to practice before their next outing, at Providence in New Lenox on Friday, Feb. 12.

The St. Ignatius sophomores set the tone for the evening with an oddly similar 65-37 victory in the preliminary game.    

Cross Country Team Wrap-Up

Cold, blustery conditions made it tough going for lithe, lean runners, so the cross country season ended on a mildly disappointing note for Leo sophomore Ja’keem Cole and senior teammate Kobe Roberts.

Cole, Leo’s leading runner all season, placed 64th at the Harvest Christian IHSA Sectional meet in Elgin on Saturday, Oct. 31. Roberts was 75th. Their times for the three-mile course—18:41.40 for Cole, 19:07.60 for Roberts—were well off their personal bests, which spoke to the difficult conditions..

Sectional competition was the culmination of the cross country season, as COVID concerns prompted cancellation of the state meet. So reaching the sectional was a noteworthy accomplishment for both Leo runners. The previous week they had led the Lions to a sixth-place finish at the Bishop McNamara Regional in Kankakee.

COVID concerns also resulted in a change to the format of IHSA competition. At the regional, the top five teams and top five individual finishers from non-qualifying teams moved on to the sectional. So Leo, with its sixth-place showing, fell one spot short of advancing as a team.

Cole placed 18th at the regional, covering the three-mile course in 17:23.15. Roberts was 23rd in 17:29.89. Seniors Damen Ward (32nd, 17:55.35) and Ri’chard Coleman (33rd, 17:56.38) and sophomores Tim Wilson (46th, 18:30.61) and David Hannah (65th, 19:28.52) also contributed to Leo’s sixth-place finish behind Herscher, Paxton-Buckley-Loda, Chicago Christian, Joliet Catholic and host Bishop Mac.

At the Catholic League meet in Glenview one week earlier, Cole had trouble dealing with the windy conditions and was more than 50 seconds off his regional time, placing 43rd overall in 18:14.19. But his tightly bunched teammates joined him leading Leo to a second-place showing (behind Montini) in the CCL White Division and an eighth-place finish overall, behind Loyola, St. Ignatius, Fenwick, Marmion, Brother Rice, DePaul Prep and Montini.

Coleman (46th, 18:25.2), Ward (48th, 18:39.9), Roberts (49th, 18:41.9) and Hannah (64th, 19:43.9) rounded out the Leo contingent.

Congratulations to all the Lion runners and to first-year Coach Andre Weathers on a strong season.

Wrestler Jordan Anderson learns a lot while competing in Champaign

Qualifying for the 2020 state high school wrestling tournament may well have been a life-altering experience for Leo senior Jordan Anderson.

“When I put my shoes up and came off the mat after my last match,” Jordan said, “I had a lot of memories. I couldn‘t help thinking about how far I’d come in two years. It was a pretty good feeling.”

The son of Leo teacher/coach Mike Anderson, Jordan competed at 152 pounds and qualified for the IHSA Class 1-A state meet with a third-place finish at the Bowen Sectional. A week earlier he’d won the Class 1-A Bowen Regional, leading a five-man Leo contingent into sectional competition, but he was the only Leo wrestler to advance.

Junior Martin Pumphrey (second at 195 pounds), freshman Esai Jacinto (third at 106 pounds), sophomore Amari White (third at 138 pounds) and freshman Amir Pumphrey (third at 160 pounds) were the other Leo wrestlers to reach the sectional. Jordan became the third Leo wrestler in the last six years to become a state qualifier, following heavyweight James Britten (2015) and James Foy (2018), the state runner-up at 138 pounds.  

Competing at the State Farm Center on the U of I campus in Urbana-Champaign, Jordan defeated Mikel Ent of Auburn by a 6-2 decision in his first-round match. “I was nervous,” Jordan acknowledged, “and when you combine nerves with the lights, the noise … that was probably the most tired I ever got during a match or afterwards.”

His quarterfinal opponent, John Sexton of Champaign-St. Thomas More, would go on to finish fourth in the state after beating Jordan on a 6-3 decision. “I lost to a guy who was 44-2, but I felt I held my own with him,” Jordan said. 

The  tournament ended for Jordan when Curtis Green of Westmont pinned him in a wrestleback. Thus he finished 1-2 for Champaign and 29-9 for the season, but he wouldn’t trade the experience—or his interactions with Coach Michial Foy—for a better record.

“I didn’t wrestle freshman year because I had a broken wrist,” he recalled. “Sophomore year, I didn’t really buy in, and I should have because Coach Foy is an Olympian with all this knowledge that he wanted to share with us.”

Better late than never.

“I’m totally bought in now,” Jordan said. “What Coach Foy instills in us about focus and fighting through adversity goes way beyond wrestling. My grades improved, so I became a better student, and I feel I became a better person. I guess I was content with being average, but not now. I never knew a sport could have such an effect on  how you learn.”

Jordan shared an embrace with Coach Foy after his final match. “It was really kind of emotional that he’s not going to be my coach anymore. I learned so much from him. He said, ‘There’s more after this. The lessons you learned are going to stay with you,’ and I really believe that.”

Lions’ season comes to an end against Fenger

By Dan McGrath

Illinois Lutheran, Grant Park, Newark … the three-game diet of cupcakes on which the Leo Lions had feasted left them ill-equipped to deal with the gristle and grit they encountered from Chicago Public League campaigner Fenger in the title game of the IHSA Class 1-A Ottawa Marquette Sectional on Friday, March 6.

Self-inflicted mistakes were the story in a 56-55 defeat that ended Leo’s season and sent Fenger (20-14) on to the Illinois State Supersectional.

Reaching 20 wins for the fourth time in five years, the Lions finished 20-15. But “what might have been” is the feeling they’ll be left with, and it’s not very satisfying,

“Everybody could have done better tonight, including the coaches,” Leo Coach Jamal Thompson said in a locker room that was library-quiet. “I feel like I let the kids down.”

Thompson didn’t shoot 35 percent for the game, including 4-for-16 on three-pointers. He wasn’t assessed either of the two fourth-quarter technical fouls that gave the Titans four points and two additional possessions and fouled Leo point guard Terrance Ford out of the game. He didn’t grant an all-access pass in the lane to Fenger’s unorthodox lefty Donovan Taylor, who improvised his way to a game-high 20 points and seven assists. He didn’t commit any of Leo’s five fourth-quarter turnovers.

Thompson didn’t allow Willis Baker to sneak into the lane and rebound a missed Fenger free throw that led to an additional possession and a bucket in a one-point game. He wasn’t the victim of a Baker steal that became a three-point play and trimmed Leo’s four-point lead to one on the final play of the third quarter, revitalizing the Titans just when they seemed to be unraveling.

Despite all that, Leo was still in position to win the game after rebounding the second of Dejuan Currie’s two missed free throws with 15 seconds left and Fenger leading 56-55. With Ford having fouled out, Kendale Anderson (16 points) and Tim Howard (12 plus 13 rebounds) were the most logical options. But guard LaShaun Glover barrelled his way into the lane from the baseline and got so jammed up in traffic that he couldn’t get a shot or a pass off and turned the ball over, touching off a delirious celebration on the Fenger sideline while the Lions looked on in stunned disbelief.

Game over.

Season over.

What might have been.

“We certainly had our ups and downs this year,” Thompson said. “We won 20 games against a great schedule. We were 10-5 in the Catholic League. Kendale was a horse all year, and we rode him. Tim played great these last few weeks of the season. I loved coaching these guys, I really did. But it’s hard to think about any of that right now.”

After Kevin Drumgoole suffered a season-ending knee injury, Anderson and Howard were the only seniors who took the floor for the Lions. Thirteen of the 15 players who suited up against Fenger will return next season, and reinforcements will arrive from a sophomore team that was 20-7 overall and 13-2 in the Catholic League.

But, as Thompson noted, it’s hard to think about any of that right now.

“This one’s going to hurt for a while,” he said.