Although it doesn’t carry quite the cachet of the Riverside-Brookfield High School football team’s classic game against Joliet Catholic Academy in the 2001 Class 5A quarterfinals (JCA won 56-50), the Bulldogs’ 66-61 win over Morton in boys basketball last year ranks as one of the greatest moments in RBHS sports history.
That memorable victory gave RBHS boys basketball its first sectional title in program history, and at least to date, the cherry on top of head coach Tom McCloskey’s accomplished career.
RBHS finished 28-4 (most wins in program history), won its own Bill VandeMerkt Thanksgiving Tournament, 14th straight conference championship, as well as regional and sectional titles, and was a runner-up at the Jack Tosh Holiday Classic.
Although the Bulldogs’ magical postseason run last season ended with a 62-45 loss to eventual Class 4A state champion Stevenson in a supersectional game, the sectional title celebration shared between the RBHS coaches, players and fans before a standing-room-only crowd at Morton’s Hapac Gymnasium resembled a feel good sports movie ending.
So what can the Bulldogs possibly do for an encore?
Junior guard Henry Trelenberg is confident the Bulldogs’ best is yet to come.
“I believe this year’s team is going to pick up where we left off last season,” Trelenberg said. “If we stay focused and improve every day, we can go ever further this season. We have the pieces to do it.
“Our strength is getting out into the open court and getting to the basket. We also have the ability to penetrate and kick out to shooters.”
While it remains to be seen how much RBHS will accomplish this season, expectations are understandably sky high.
“We’re itching to go,” said McCloskey about the start of the season. “We’ve had a lot of open gyms and played against each other for a couple of weeks (in practice) so we’re really looking forward to playing other teams.”
Plenty of star power returns with 80 percent of the starting lineup intact this season. Forward Sam Johnson (the Landmark’s 2014-15 Male Athlete of the Year,) graduated but All-Conference players Daniko Jackson, Jalen Clanton and Mark Smith are back along with Trelenberg.
Jackson is a three-year varsity starter who averaged nine points and 5.3 assists and shot 84 percent from the free throw line last season. While Jackson is a flashy player with great court vision and creativity in the lane, substance trumps style when breaking down the unselfish senior point guard’s game.
“Our team is very versatile and we’re excited to play again in front of our classmates,” Jackson said. “It all starts for us in practice. If we make mistakes in practice we look at those like they could cost us a loss in the state playoffs. We’re pushing each other every day to be the best we can be and stay focused.”
Fresh off a breakout sophomore campaign in which he averaged 12 points and three assists per game, Clanton appears poised for even greater accomplishments this season. Last season, the combo guard scored in double figures in 20 of 32 games highlighted by a game-winning shot against Lyons Township.
Like Clanton, Trelenberg is another junior guard with plenty of offensive firepower. He averaged 8.3 points and is an excellent three-point shooter who can also score off the dribble.
In addition to their offensive prowess, all three guards are willing defenders and proven winners.
Senior center Mark Smith complements the Bulldogs’ potent perimeter attack. A three-year varsity player who is drawing Division III recruiting interest, Smith is very efficient offensively. He scored 11 points per game on 61 percent shooting. Smith is also a very good rebounder and shot blocker with a long arm span.
Newcomers ready to make an impact include 6-5 senior guard Skyler Nash, 6-3 sophomore guard Ryan Cicenas and 6-4 junior forward Jalen Brooks.
Nash, a Division I recruit along with Clanton, transferred from Whitney Young and can score in a variety of ways. Cicenas is regarded as one of the top three-point shooters in the Class of 2018. Brooks will look to help fill the void left by Johnson at power forward.
Senior guard James Kaczmarczyk is another player to watch.
“James missed a lot of last year with a shoulder surgery,” McCloskey said. “He’s a great athlete and we look for contributions from him this season.”
While the Bulldogs are essentially a lock to win 20 plus games and the Metro Suburban Conference every year under McCloskey, the schedule is particularly challenging this season.
“We have the toughest RB nonconference schedule of all time,” McCloskey said. “We’re playing Gonzaga Prep from Washington D.C. in the Chicago Elite Classic, plus teams like St. Joe, Fenwick, Morgan Park and Lyons Township, among others. We always look to play a tough schedule to get us ready for the state tournament.”
Although RBHS doesn’t have any glaring concerns, rebounding will be a key aspect to the team’s success.
“We lost Sam Johnson’s 390 rebounds from last season,” McCloskey said. “It’s definitely a focus of ours to make sure we’re a good rebounding team. Mark has stepped it up and Skyler does a good job on the boards.”
RBHS opens the season by hosting the Bill VandeMerkt Thanksgiving Tournament. The Bulldogs will take on Rich Central, St. Laurence, Lake Park and OPRF at the tourney.