Technically, the Riverside-Brookfield High School boys basketball team’s remarkable season ended with a 62-45 loss to eventual Class 4A state champion Stevenson in the Chicago State University Supersectional on March 17. Powered by Jalen Brunson and Connor Cashaw, the Patriots overwhelmed the Bulldogs early with a 20-4 lead and never looked back en route to victory.
Thankfully, that’s not the game you, I or essentially anybody who follows Bulldogs basketball will remember most this season.
In the previous round of the playoffs, on Friday the 13th no less, RBHS pulled out an enthralling 66-61 win over sectional host Morton before a standing-room-only crowd at Hapac Gymnasium in Cicero. It was the Bulldogs’ first sectional championship in program history.
The imagery from that game epitomized what’s special about high school sports, and in particular, basketball’s signature March Madness.
Morton’s sizable student body turned out en masse — a sea of black T-shirts firmly ensconced at the west end of the court — ready to rattle the Bulldogs. Directly behind the RBHS bench, the 6th Man student section of RBHS volleyed vocal support back to their beloved Bulldogs. A collection of alumni, parents and high school basketball junkies completed the jam-packed canvas.
During the game, the Bulldogs and Mustangs battled back and forth with the former’s starting five of Daniko Jackson, Jalen Clanton, Henry Trelenberg, Sam Johnson and Mark Smith ultimately outdueling Morton stars like Weisner Perez, Tony Haley, Dexter Dale by a slim margin.
While it’s obvious each starter from RBHS can or will play college basketball, starting with Johnson (the lone senior), teamwork trumped any individual performances or accolades this historic season.
That’s saying a lot considering Johnson regularly posted triple-doubles and recently earned Illinois Coaches Basketball Association third-team all-state honors, while the returning four starters are burgeoning stars.
Jackson is a great point guard who handles pressure on the court, literally and figuratively, with a smoothness reflecting his style of play. Clanton and Trelenberg comprise a terrific pair of high-scoring perimeter threats, while Smith provides the Bulldogs an invaluable post presence.
For all the sensory overload permeating the RBHS-Morton game, which included a canon shooting confetti, the obligatory back flip battle between cheerleaders and both student bodies shouting the trendy, “I believe that we will win” chant, two images resonated with me.
First, I noticed the RBHS starters locking arms during pre-game introductions like kids awaiting the first drop on a roller coaster. More revealing, it offered a poignant reminder of their unity.
Fittingly, the second image was of head coach Tom McCloskey cutting down the last string of the net and raising it triumphantly in the air after victory has been secured before a throng of RBHS supporters. It truly resembled a closing scene in one of those feel-good sports movies.
In 19 seasons as the head coach of RBHS basketball, McCloskey has guided the Bulldogs to 14 consecutive conference titles at RBHS, 282 wins since 2001 including a 139-12 conference record, a sectional championship and four regional titles.
“It’s been an amazing year,” McCloskey said after the sectional. “I don’t know if [the atmosphere of the sectional final] was the best I’ve seen but it’s right up there. To be honest, I think we did this [winning a sectional] for all the guys who have played basketball at RB. I know they’re sharing it with us.”
While it’s hard to imagine the magic of the Morton Sectional final being replicated, the reality is the Bulldogs’ best appears on track for next season.