Lions Show Promise on the Diamond

By Dan McGrath

A break-even record is an unattainable goal for the Leo Lions baseball team due to a mid-season dry spell and a monstrously tough Catholic League schedule. But the progress the Lions have made in a major rebuilding year is undeniable. 

And, with the incoming freshman class said to be replete with promising talent, the process should continue. More players will be a welcome development for coaches Mike Anderson ’91 and Anthony Lott ’92, because a lack of depth has been Leo’s biggest challenge this season, particularly on the pitching staff.

The Lions just don’t have the arms to manage a Catholic League schedule that has had them playing three and four games a week. They’re usually competitive for the first three or four innings, but when a high pitch count necessitates a pitching change, tired arms take over, with predictable results. 

That said, back-to-back victories over St. Joe’s on May 13 and 15 gave the team its most productive week of the season, despite being down two starting players. 

In a 7-4 win over the Chargers at Chicago State, sophomore Esai Jacinto inherited a 3-0 deficit and a bases-loaded, no-out predicament in the second inning. He pitched out of it, and allowed only one run the rest of the way as the Lions came from behind, sophomore Nate Sims’ two-run homer sparking the rally.

Leo’s bats came to life at St. Joe’s two days later. The Lions didn’t seem to mind playing in a steady drizzle. They erupted for 13 runs in the first two innings and went on to an 18-3 victory that was halted after five innings by the 10-run rule. Junior Evan Hill went the distance on the mound and banged out three hits for the winners. Sophomore Kyrent Cole also had three hits and junior P.J. Brown, freshman Shawn Phillips and Sims had two apiece as the Lions collected 21 hits over the abbreviated afternoon. 

The Lions close out the Catholic League season with back-to-backs against Montini and De La Salle. They await their assignment to an IHSA Class-A regional, with regional play scheduled to begin the week of May 24.  

Baseball Lions Win Catholic League Opener Against Marmion

By Dan McGrath

The rebuilding Leo Lions baseball team pulled off one of its most significant victories in recent school history on Monday, April 26, overcoming a 4-0 deficit to beat Marmion 7-6 in the Catholic League opener for both teams at Chicago State.

Sophomore Matthew Hernandez inherited a bases-loaded jam and a 6-6 tie in the top of the seventh inning, but pitched out of it. In the bottom of the seventh, freshman Lalo Santana lined a double down the right-field to bring home the winning run as Leo (2-3) halted a three-game losing streak.

“The kids fought to the last pitch,” Coach Mike Anderson said. “I was really proud of them.”

After losing the entire 2020 season to COVID issues, the Lions have embarked on a thorough rebuilding program. They’re hoping to emulate the success the Chicago Cubs had with a rebuilding plan that produced a World Series title in 2016, or the Chicago White Sox with a rebuild that has transformed them into American League contenders this season.

Rebuilding usually means going young, and the Lions are doing that with a roster that  includes no seniors. Evan Hill and P.J. Brown are experienced, multi-position juniors whose leadership and versatility provide Coach Anderson with a strong nucleus for a team otherwise consisting of freshmen and sophomores.

Obviously there’s risk involved with such heavy dependence on youth. But sophomores Hernandez, Esai Jacinto, Kyrent Cole, Jacob Douglas and Nate Sims and freshmen Santana and Shawn Phillips all come from high-level youth leagues. It will take them a while to adjust to the game at the high school level, but they know how to play baseball, which gives them an advantage over the woefully inexperienced teams Leo has fielded in recent years.

Despite a 2-3 record, early results have been encouraging. The Lions pounded out 15 hits in a season-opening, come-from-behind 11-9 win at Lindblom, with Hill slugging a home run and two triples. The hard-throwing right-hander also pitched into the seventh inning of the Marmion game.

The bats went silent in a 4-1 loss at TF South two days later, and a 13-3 loss at perennial Public League contender Brooks on Saturday, April 17 looks worse than it was.

Leo spotted Brooks a big early lead with two shaky innings, but settled down, cleaned things up and blanked the hosts the rest of the way.

The Tuesday, April 20 game at Thornwood was a weather casualty and will be made up later in the season. Next up for the Lions is another  Catholic League encounter with Loyola Academy at Chicago State on Thursday, April 29.

“The kids have been working really hard and have shown improvement every time we take the field,” Anderson said. “We’ve got some good young ballplayers. I think we’re going to surprise some people.”

A Loss to Marian Catholic Ends the Football Season

By Dan McGrath

A team has to learn how to win before it can win, and the inability to grasp that lesson helps explain why an usual spring football season ended with the Leo Lions saddled with an unsightly 0-6 record.

The ‘W’ column came up empty for Leo when Marian Catholic used three fourth-quarter touchdowns to pull out a 20-12 victory over the Lions in a Senior Night season finale at St. Rita’s Cronin Field on Friday, April 23.

Linebacker Perdure Carter, running back Jalen Johnson and the other six seniors in uniform did all they could to avert the hurt of a winless season. But the Lions’ inability to muster anything of consequence on offense put too much pressure on a defense that finally caved, abetted by an interception and an errant snap on a punt.

“This was more like a training camp than a season,  but we’ll learn from it, build off it and grow,” Coach Mike Holmes said. “I want to thank the seniors, and the younger guys … I hope they don’t ever experience this level of disappointment again.”

Tajheem Lawson scored on four- and two-yard runs and Randall Nauden went in from seven yards out in the final 5 1/2 minutes as Marian transformed a 12-0 deficit into the 20-12 final.

Leo’s most productive drive of the season—46 yards in seven plays—ended with Johnson’s 18-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. Moments later, Marian quarterback Ronald Thomas III lost the ball while fleeing the Leo pass rush. Marcus Ray returned his fumble 64 yards for the score that gave the Lions a 12-0 lead at halftime.

But Leo’s offense called it a night at that  point and left its defense marooned on the field. James E’Akels completed just four of 18 passes for 40 yards, and Johnson needed 21 carries to grind out 73 yards.

A first down or two would have enabled the Lions to run out the clock after the first of Lawson’s two touchdowns, but a holding penalty negated E’Akels’ seven-yard scramble on third-and-five, forcing a punt.

After the snap sailed over kicker Bill Anderson’s head, Marian needed to travel only 20 yards for the tying touchdown, nudging ahead on sophomore Eric Sebastian’s PAT kick.

A sack and three incompletions got Marian the ball back with another short field, and  Nauden scored the clincher.

Game, set, season.

Baseball Team Shows Promise in Loss to Brooks

By Dan McGrath

After losing the entire 2020 season to COVID issues, the Leo High School baseball team has embarked on a thorough rebuilding program as it takes to the field for the 2021 campaign.

The Lions are hoping to emulate the success the Chicago Cubs had with a rebuilding plan that produced a World Series title in 2016, or the Chicago White Sox with a rebuild that has transformed them into American League contenders this season.

Rebuilding usually means going young, and the Lions are doing that with a roster that  includes no seniors. Evan Hill and P.J. Brown are experienced, multi-position juniors whose leadership and versatility provide Coach Mike Anderson with a strong nucleus for a team otherwise consisting of freshmen and sophomores.

Obviously there’s risk involved with such heavy dependence on youth. But sophomores Matthew Hernandez, Esai Jacinto, Kyrent Cole, Jacob Douglas and Nate Sims and freshmen Shawn Phillips and Lalo Santana all come from high-level youth leagues. It will take them a while to adjust to the game at the high school level, but they know how to play baseball, which gives them an advantage over the woefully inexperienced teams Leo has fielded in recent years.

Despite a 1-2 record, early results have been encouraging. The Lions pounded out 15 hits in a season-opening, come-from-behind 11-9 win at Lindblom, with Hill slugging a home run and two triples. Those bats went silent in a 4-1 loss at TF South two days later, and a 13-3 loss at perennial Public League contender Brooks on Saturday, April 17 looks worse than it was.

Leo spotted Brooks a big early lead with two shaky innings, but settled down, cleaned things up and blanked the hosts the rest of the way.

The Tuesday, April 20 game at Thornwood was a weather casualty and will be made up later in the season. Next up for the Lions is their home opener: 10 a.m. Saturday, April 24 vs. Westmont at Chicago State University.

“The kids have been working really hard and have shown improvement every time we take the field,” Anderson said. “We’ve got some good young ballplayers who love the game. I think we’re going to surprise some people.”

Fenwick Bests Football Lions

Their first victory of this unusual spring football season seemed a more realistic goal for the Leo Lions when Fenwick quarterback Kaden Cobb missed the game with a shoulder injury—the smooth, strong-armed junior has several Division I offers on file already and might be the top prospect in the Catholic League.

But when a team has 60-plus players in uniform, as the Friars did, there’s a chance it has a replacement at the ready. Or, in Fenwick’s case, two replacements.

Sophomore EJ Hosty and senior Nick Polston split the QB duties and did a passable impersonation of Cobb, with Hosty throwing for 186 yards and two touchdowns and Polston running for 57 yards and two more scores as the Friars (2-2) celebrated Senior Night with a 43-0 romp at Triton College on Friday, April 16.

Hosty averaged 23 yards on his eight completions, in large part because his large, fast receivers created mismatches against Leo’s young, small defensive backs. Basketball standout Max Reese’s three catches produced 90 yards and a 26-yard touchdown. Fellow hoopster Eian Pugh had three catches for 72 yards and a 15-yard score.

On the ground, Polston formed a potent one-two punch with Danny Kent, who carried 13 times for 82 yards and a four-yard touchdown.

Fenwick’s defense, meanwhile, had more help than it probably needed in pitching a shutout. Three Leo turnovers were damaging enough, but 134 penalty yards kept the Lions bottled up in their own territory all night and frequently gave the Friars a short field.

It was telling that Leo’s two biggest plays of the night—Raiyon Davidson’s 34-yard kickoff return and Chris Lindo’s 50-yard punt runback—were negated by penalties.

The Lions’ frosh-soph kept the unseasonably cool night from being a total loss, improving to 3-2 with a 26-22 victory over the Friars in a well-played preliminary game.

Leo will try to avert a winless season in a Senior Night season finale against Marian Catholic at St. Rita’s Cronin Field on Friday, April 23. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. 

“The effort is there” against Notre Dame

By Dan McGrath

The Leo Lions continue to be good for what ails opposing football teams from the Catholic League and East Suburban Catholic Conference.

Notre Dame College Prep was the third consecutive previously winless squad the Lions had faced in this pandemic-induced spring season when the teams squared off at Legends Field in Niles on Friday, April 9. The way the Dons played in a 42-6 victory suggests the only explanation for the 0-3 record they brought into the game was strength of schedule: Montini, Marist and Providence.

Behind a road grader-efficient offensive line, the Dons ground out 255 rushing yards, with running backs Jimmy Fidanzia, Francesco Ricciardi and Colin Randazzo combining for 196 yards and three touchdowns. 

Meanwhile quarterback Vincenzo Ricciardi’s nimble feet and dart-throwing left arm were an ideal complement to the heavy-duty running game; the slick sophomore completed five of six passes for 48 yards and two touchdowns.

This is not to say Leo (0-4) lacked effort or even played poorly. Junior defensive tackle Jakolbi Wilson manhandled every Don who tried to block him and had four tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Sophomore defensive back Tim Durr made plays all over the field. 

But too often the young Lions missed assignments or were caught out of position on defense, which is how three- and four-yard gains become 10- to 12-yard gains and scoring drives are sustained.

On offense the Lions couldn’t get much going on the ground as Jalen Johnson had just 24 yards to show for his 12 carries. Leo couldn’t gain a yard on fourth-and-one when it was still a ballgame in the second quarter, and quarterback James E’Akels took  a nine-yard sack on a third-and one play on the series following its lone touchdown.

E’Akels did complete 10 of 17 passes for 157 yards and a touchdown, a season-long 73-yarder to Raiyon Davidson, who caught a short hitch, turned it upfield and outran everyone, one of Davidson’s five receptions for 125 yards. But two interceptions—one of which glanced off the receiver’s hands—set the Dons up for short-field scoring drives.

“We played better tonight,” Coach Mike Holmes said. “I know the score doesn’t show it, but we’re improving, and I expect we’ll play better against Fenwick next week.”

Leo will face the Friars (1-2) at 7 p.m. on Friday, April 16 at Triton College in River Forest. 

The effort is there. The Lions just need some results to follow.

Lions Have a Bad Day Against St. Laurence

By Dan McGrath

The old “no good deed goes unpunished” aphorism is rarely applicable in football, but it was for the Leo Lions at St. Laurence on Thursday, April 1.

The Vikings were in search of a game after Benet Academy canceled on them for COVID-related reasons. Meanwhile, Leo’s scheduled Saturday game with St. Joe’s was up in the air; the Chargers have yet to play a game in this unusual spring season and have gone back and forth on whether to field a team.

So school administrators agreed to send the Leo varsity to St. Laurence on Thursday and a frosh-soph/JV team to Elmhurst College to face football-depleted St. Joe’s on Saturday.

No good deed … 

St. Laurence was eager to pound on somebody after being pummeled by powerhouses from Joliet Catholic and Nazareth in its first two games, and Leo was its unwitting victim. The Vikings scored touchdowns on their first five possessions and added a defensive score for a 42-0 halftime lead that stood up as the final through a scoreless second half that included a running-clock final period, a splendid idea on an unseasonably cold spring evening.

Darius Wilson, a smooth senior quarterback adept at running the option, scooted 25 yards for one touchdown and hooked up with Aaron Wofford (61 yards) and Jalen Hamilton (33 yards) for TD passes. Matt Ochoa scored on runs of 22 and two yards, and linebacker Damien Rhoden brought a fumble back 30 yards for another score.

In pitching the shutout, the St. Laurence defense held the Lions to 3-for-19 passing and five first downs, two coming on penalties. Jalen Johnson managed 32 rushing yards on eight carries, but Leo finished with negative yardage for the evening because quarterback James E’Akels was dropped three times for 35 yards in losses.

The Lions are now 0-3, and the remaining schedule offers little relief with road games at Notre Dame and Fenwick and a Senior Night home finale vs. Marian Catholic.   

No good deed … 

Lions Fall to DePaul Prep

Leo had won 10 of its previous 11 football meetings with the team formerly known as Gordon Tech and which now goes by DePaul Prep. Such domination was nowhere to be found at St. Rita’s Cronin Field on Saturday, March 27. The Lions were complicit in their own demise as an 8-0 defeat left them with an 0-2 record in this curious, COVID-created spring season.

Rams defensive back Mikael McCalrin intercepted a James E’Akels screen pass on the third play of the game and brought it back 36 yards. A 16-yard scoring strike from Anthony Martinez to Shane O’Brien would subsequently produce the day’s only touchdown.

After a valiant goal-line stand in the third quarter—DePaul had five tries from inside the three-yard line and did not score—Leo took over at its own one. Jalen Johnson was tackled in the end zone on the first play for a safety and the 8-0 final.

The Lions had three opportunities to win a winnable game, but were done in by their own mistakes. 

E’Akels and Raiyon Davidson hooked up on a 73-yard pass play that looked like a touchdown but was negated by a block-in-the-back penalty, the infraction occurring well after Davidson had sped by.

 E’Akels hit Chris Lindo for nine yards on a fourth-and-seven play that gave Leo a first down at DePaul’s 15-yard line, but a dead-ball personal foul on the play moved the ball back to the 30, where the drive died.

Finally, a 48-yard collaboration between E’Akels and sophomore Merrick Sample brought Leo to the Rams’ 17-yard line with just over two minutes remaining, but E’Akels next pass went directly to DePaul linebacker Mike Battaglini. The Rams got the ball back and ran out the clock.

“Mistakes killed us,” Coach Mike Holmes said.

Indeed.

E’Akels finished 9-for-19 for 132 yards, with two costly interceptions. He was dropped three times for 27 yards in losses and spent much of the day running for his life. Marcus Ray carried 10 times for 74 yards, but had only four touches in the second half.

Martinez completed 10 of 22 passes for 122 yards, connecting five times with Cole Cerravolo for 48 yards. 

But the game’s most telling statistic was Leo’s 10 penalties for 71 yards. Four times the Lions were flagged for having 12 men on the field.

They’ll try to do better next Saturday when they face St. Joe’s at Elmhurst University. 

Lions Play Their First Football Game and Lose to St. Patrick

Roughly 17 months had passed since the Leo Lions had last played a football game when they took the field for a Catholic League/East Suburban Catholic crossover skirmish with St. Patrick at St. Rita’s Cronin Field on Saturday, March 20.

COVID concerns, of course, wiped out the 2020 high school season in Illinois and turned football into a spring sport.

And judging by the way things progressed on a gorgeous, sun-splashed spring afternoon, Leo could have used some additional prep time.

The Shamrocks hit the Lions with touchdowns on their first three possessions and had them back on their heels all afternoon. Leo’s defense got serious (and stingy) after the halftime break, but two Lion turnovers set St. Pat’s up for two additional scores, leading to a 35-8 final.

“You could tell we hadn’t played football in a while,” Coach Mike Holmes said. “Both teams.” 

With no running game to speak of, Leo was overly dependent on quarterback James E’Akels’ passing. The strong-armed junior connected on his first four throws, but finished 10-for-27 for 135 yards with one interception. In E’Akels’ defense, he had at least four balls dropped, including one in the end zone that would have gone for a second-quarter touchdown. And when he wasn’t running for his life from a pass rush that caught and dropped him six times, he was trying to corral shotgun snaps that would have tested the skills of a major league middle infielder.

E’Akels averted a shutout with a last-minute, 8-yard touchdown pass to Raiyon Davidson, whereupon fellow junior Rob Smith made the highlight reel play of the day with a leaping, one-handed snag of E’Akels’ two-point conversion pass.

St. Pat’s, conversely, didn’t get much out of the passing game, but didn’t need to with fullback Alex Goworowski piling up 91 yards on 12 carries with two touchdowns and Aaron Solis adding 51 yards on 10 tries with two scores. 

“We made too many mistakes to win, but we hung in there and got better as the game went on, especially on defense,” Holmes said. “If we’re willing to come to practice and put in the work to get better, we can build off this.”

Lions Finish the Basketball Season on a High Note

By Dan McGrath

If things had gone as well all season as they did in a Senior Day season finale, the Leo basketball team would not be looking at a 4-9 record.

Such is life in the Season of the Pandemic.

The Lions were a young team learning on the fly, and with those 13 games compressed into a COVID-influenced five-week schedule, they were learning in the heat of competition, managing just two wins in seven games within the cozy confines of the Leo gym.

Still, a 74-61 nonconference victory over Christ the King Jesuit College Prep at Leo on Saturday, March 13, gave the Lions reason to feel good about themselves … and offered an intriguing look at the future.  

The victory broke a six-game losing streak. It enabled senior Ri’chard Coleman to conclude his four-year career as a contributor to a satisfying effort. And with the 10 underclassmen in uniform providing 69 of those 75 points, it left Coach Jamal Thompson eager to get started on next season … after a week off for some well-earned rest, perhaps.

“This season was like a training camp,” Thompson said. “We knew we were young, and with all those games, we didn’t have much practice time, but we still needed to learn and grow and develop as best we could. The record isn’t what we wanted, but I think we accomplished a lot in terms of gaining experience. Now we have to build on it.”

Christ the King, from Chicago’s West Side, was not some feel-good nonconference “gimme” opponent for Senior Day. The Gladiators (12-5) have aspirations of joining the Catholic League, and the long, strong, aggressive squad they brought to Leo looked as if it could hold its own after finishing second to Hope Academy in the less rigorous Chicago Prep conference.  

Makai Reed was a handful with 26 points inside and Josh Reed collected 12 from all over, but the visitors were undone by a variety of Leo presses that forced 24 turnovers and got the Lions more offense-from-defense easy baskets than they’d had in any game this season.

Junior Cameron Cleveland caught fire in the second and third quarters, scoring 22 of his team-high 25 points and fueling a 21-4 second-period run that broke open the game. Ja’keem Cole had 13 of his 16 in the first half and fellow sophomore Tyler Smith contributed 12, but the unsung star of the game was Christian Brockett. 

The freshman guard didn’t score a point, but he had 10 of the Lions’ season-best 22 assists, along with seven steals. With long arms, quick hands and uncanny anticipation, Brockett seemed to be everywhere on the press that decided the game in Leo’s favor. He gives off a vibe that he might be a special player.  

Leo’s sophomores got the day off to a rollicking start by beating Christ the King’s sophs 50-49 in the preliminary game. Freshman Tristan Taylor rolled down the lane for a left-handed layup with two seconds left that settled the back-and-forth affair and closed out a 6-6 season for the young Lions.