The consensus is Tom McCloskey deserved better.
The longtime Riverside-Brookfield High School boys basketball coach retired after the team’s last game in February with the Bulldogs posting an uncharacteristically subpar 12-16 record.
The team endured its share of adversity with the departure of two starters early in the season, five losses by 15 points or more and the end of its remarkable run of consecutive conference championships at 15.
The Bulldogs’ sustained excellence under McCloskey’s watch is what made this season so startling.
While McCloskey is as competitive a coach you’ll find, coaching has never been about exclusively wins and losses.
Building relationships with his players and helping them develop on and off the court is more important. By that measure, this season graded out perhaps better than most people realize.
“I’m proud of the players because they gave it their all,” McCloskey said. “We had some tough close games that didn’t go our way, but they never quit. They worked hard in practice and they were an enjoyable group to be around.”
McCloskey’s career and the Bulldogs’ season ended with a 97-65 loss against Whitney Young in a Class 4A regional semifinal. RBHS opened the playoffs with a 69-61 win over Von Steuben as senior forward Jalen Brooks and junior guard Ryan Cicenas scored 17 points apiece.
“We played well against Von Steuben and were fortunate enough to hang on,” McCloskey said. “We played hard but came up short against Whitney Young. Whitney Young is one of the top teams in the state and could go a long way in the playoffs.”
Aware that his career would likely come to a close against Whitney Young, the finality of the moment hit McCloskey in the postgame locker room.
“We approached the playoffs one game at a time like we do all season,” he said. “I addressed the team after the game. I’ll admit it was hard on me, but I got through it.”
As he begins retired life, McCloskey will have the luxury of looking back on a superb coaching career.
He’s also earned the respect of countless players and coaches.
“I learned a lot about basketball and life from Coach McCloskey,” former RBHS guard Will Kincanon said. “He really knows the game of basketball and cares for his players. It was a pleasure playing for him.”
“Tom is not only a fine basketball coach but a fine man,” Fenwick basketball coach Rick Malnati said. “He’s done a great job with the RB program and been a big reason for their success. He also does a tremendous job with all the summer basketball leagues and camps at RB.”
McCloskey’s passion for basketball is a given.
“The idea of coaching kind of hit me in college,” McCloskey said. “I decided it was something I really wanted to do and went full steam ahead.”
“I really enjoy practice,” he said. “I think it’s great when you have a really good week of practice and everybody is on the same page. Then the players execute during a game what we talked about all week. You never stop learning.”
Results speak for themselves
In 25 years as a head coach (21 at RBHS and four at Montini), McCloskey had a 437-236 record, a 65.9-percent winning percentage). Since 2001, McCloskey has guided the Bulldogs to a 157-18 record (92.1 percent) in conference play.
He’s been particularly successful at RBH, winning 15 consecutive conference titles, being named Illinois Basketball Coaches Association District Coach of the Year nine times and winning four regional titles, six Bill VandeMerkt Thanksgiving Classic championships and a Jack Tosh Holiday Tournament title.
In 2015, McCloskey had arguably his best team with a starting five of Mark Smith, Sam Johnson, Daniko Jackson, Jalen Clanton and Henry Trelenberg. That squad earned the Bulldogs their only sectional title and a best-ever 28-4 record for a single season.
Paul Sitkiewicz, a reserve forward/center on that team, remembers the signature moment after RBHS edged Morton 66-61 in a scintillating sectional final.
“When Coach McCloskey cut down the last piece of net and threw his hands up in the air, I felt so happy for him,” Sitkiewicz said. “I knew he was the person who deserved that moment the most.”
McCloskey can’t necessarily choose one moment as his favorite.
“We have had so many special players and teams compete at a high level,” he said. “We are one of the smallest schools in Class 4A and we competed against everybody. We’ve had some tremendous victories over the years.”
In 2016, McCloskey was inducted into the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. His daughter, Maggie, was a fellow inductee in the 2016 class as a player. She had a prolific career as a sharp-shooting guard at RBHS and at Loyola University.
McCloskey’s son, Danny, played for him at RBHS and Molly, his other daughter, played basketball and volleyball at RBHS. She also played volleyball at Lake Forest College.
And then there is his wife, Mary Jo, the unsung hero of Team McCloskey.
“I have to say thank you to my wife, Mary Jo,” McCloskey said. “Coaching high school basketball is a very intense job that requires a lot of time and commitment. She always supported me and she’s my best friend.”
While RBHS has not named McCloskey’s replacement, he hopes it’s an internal hire.
“The search starts with our [athletic director], John Treiber, and goes from there,” McCloskey said. “I just hope the new coach is someone from our staff and I’ll leave it at that.
“Our lower levels had tremendous seasons. As long as the new coach is within staff, the program should have continued success.”
Two logical candidates would seem to be longtime varsity assistants Mike Reingruber and Dan Herbeck.
“Over the past 16 years, it has been the three of us working together,” McCloskey said. “We have always gotten along and never had any fallouts in any way, shape or form. I have so much respect for both of them. Our goal was to make RB basketball better each day.”
The Bulldogs graduate two keys seniors this year in Jalen Clanton and Jalen Brooks, who both earned all-conference recognition. Brooks finished the season as the team’s second-leading scorer at 14.9 points per game and top rebounder at 6.4 rebounds per game. He will play at St. Norbert’s College in Wisconsin next season.
Clanton, a three-year varsity starter, leaves the RBHS basketball program as one of its true greats. He finished as the fourth-leading scorer in school history with 1,334 points and averaged 18.6 points per game this season.
With McCloskey’s support, Clanton has developed his game from a fearless sophomore shooter to a senior with an all-court game.
“Coach McCloskey and I have a special relationship,” Clanton said towards the end of the regular season. “We have gotten a lot closer especially since this is his last year coaching. He’s put a lot of responsibility on me so I’m trying to make him as happy as possible.”
Cicenas, Zachary Vaia, Andrew Pitlik, A.J. Meindl, Devin Moody and Jason Bageanis return next season as the nucleus of Bulldogs.
As for McCloskey, retirement plans include a lot of golf and time with his family. He also plans on keeping his job as a teacher’s aide at RBHS.
“I feel very fortunate to teach and coach for 40 years in the community I love,” McCloskey said. “I’m very proud and thankful to be a part of the RB community.”