The Leo Lions will be under the direction of the Chicago Catholic League Coach of the Year, and their backcourt will feature the CCL Player of the Year when they begin state tournament play against Harlan in the Class 2-A Regional at Chicago Christian High School on Wednesday, Feb.23.
Jamal Thompson was chosen as the Lawless Award winner for Coach of the Year, and Jakeem Cole earned the Lawless for Player of the Year in voting by Catholic League coaches at their annual postseason meeting on Sunday, Feb. 20.
Thompson guided the Lions to a 21-4 overall record and a 13-1 CCL mark that gave Leo its first conference championship since 2010. Thompson, a 2000 Leo graduate, has won 20 or more games in three of his four seasons as the Lions’ coach, the lone exception being the 2021 spring campaign, when COVID restrictions cut the schedule to 13 games.
Cole, in his third year with the varsity and his second as a starter, averaged 16.4 points, 4.2 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 3.2 steals. The junior guard built his case by turning in some of his best games in Leo victories over his strongest POY competition: Mount Carmel’s Deandre Craig, Brother Rice’s Ahmad Henderson and St. Rita’s Morez Johnson.
“That’s great news,” Leo Principal Shaka Rawls said. “I’m proud of Coach Thompson, proud of Jakeem, proud of all the boys, not just for the season they’ve had, but for the way they represent Leo.”
All five Leo starters received postseason recognition. Senior Cameron Cleveland was voted to the second All-CCL team, while senior Austin Ford, Junior Tyler Smith and sophomore Christian Brockett were named Honorable Mention.
“It’s an honor, and I’m really happy for Ja, who deserves it for sure,” Thompson said. “But these really are team honors, recognition for the type of season we’ve had and the work we’ve put in.
“And it’s not over yet. The Catholic League was only the first step. We intend to keep it going.”
Harlan earned the right to face the top-seeded Lions in the Regional semifinal by downing Hansberry 60-38 in a Saturday play-in game. The Falcons were 11-17 in the regular season and 5-4 in the Public League White South, good for a fifth-place finish.
Harlan averages 52 points a game and allows 56. Raequan Smith, a 6-foot-3 guard, is their leading scorer at 15.2 points per game, while 6-8 center Demari Harris averages 3.3 blocks as a defensive presence inside. One common opponent is Thornwood, which beat Harlan by 20 (70-50) and lost to Leo by 10 (56-46).
The Leo-Harlan game tips off at 6 p.m., followed by the other semifinal between Joliet Catholic and Julian at 7:30. Joliet Catholic was 11-13 in the regular season, outscoring its opponents 57-55 on average. But the Hilltoppers failed to win a game in the East Suburban Catholic Conference, finishing last at 0-9. They split two games with two common Leo opponents, beating Providence Catholic 49-46 and losing to Pontiac 67-59.
Some mediocre years have relegated Julian to the Public League’s Blue Division, but the Jaguars could be on their way back after going 16-5 overall and 9-1 in the Blue South. Defense is the Jaguars’ calling card; they allow just 36 points per game while scoring 50.
Wednesday’s semifinal winners will meet for the Regional title at Chicago Christian on Friday, Feb. 25 at 7 p.m. The winner will move on to the Julian Sectional against Regional champs from Carver, Dunbar and University High.
Leo has won two regional championships and one sectional title under Thompson. “We know what’s in front of us,” he said, “and we’ll be ready.”