Bloom lands first playoff berth since 1989

924099.png

Bloom lands first playoff berth since 1989

Bloom's 1957 football team could have been the best ever produced in Illinois, better than St. Rita 1971 or Evanston 1971 or Joliet Catholic 1975 or East St. Louis 1985 or Wheaton Warrenville South 1998 or Mount Carmel 1950 or Fenwick 1962 or Loyola 1969 or Thornton 1965 or Rockford East 1974.

Trouble is the Chicago Heights school hasn't had a winner since.

In the 1950s, Bloom was the gold standard of high school sports in Illinois. The Trojans were dominant in football, basketball, wrestling, baseball and track and field. Bloom's track team won four state championships in a row.

Cecil Sarff's 1957 football team, led by future NFL player Leroy Jackson, Chuck Green, Homer Thurman and Roger Elliott, was unbeaten and unchallenged in nine games in the old South Suburban League.

Since then, Bloom football has been non-competitive. This is a program that went 0-9, 0-9, 0-9, 0-9, 1-8, 0-9 and 1-8 from 1995 to 2001.

Coach Tony Palombi, in his eighth year, was 18-45 for the past seven, a .286 winning percentage. Last year's team was 2-7. But this year's team is 6-3, the most wins in a season since 1990.

The Trojans lost to Glenbard South 31-27 in Game 2, to unbeaten Crete-Monee 41-6 in Game 6 and to Rich East 20-14 in Game 7. It appeared the long drought might continue but Bloom defeated Rich Central 21-0 last Saturday to clinch the school's fourth trip to the state playoff and first since 1989. They'll play perennial Public League power Simeon on Friday night at Gately Stadium in a Class 8A opener.

Against Rich Central, middle linebacker Malcolm Hurt sparked the defense with two sacks and an interception. Justus Brantley rushed 23 times for 112 yards and one touchdown and also caught a 60-yard scoring pass from Kendall McGinnis. Linebacker Dominique Taylor recovered a fumble in the end zone for another touchdown.

"We made history," Hurt said. "We came out here and fought with our hearts."

"We played like it was a playoff game, our last game. If we lost, we felt we would hand in our equipment that night," said senior wide receiverdefensive back Charles DeLoach III. "You can talk the talk but not walk the walk. We let our play do the talking for us."

"This is the first time we've had a group of kids who had a team atmosphere," Palombi said. "They are easy to coach. They do anything you ask. This is awesome, what you wait for as a coach, a belief in one another."

After going 1-8, 1-8 and 2-7 in the last three years, Palombi said he "needed something for these kids to hang their hats on, something for them to work with." A friend, former Thornwood coach Andre Collins suggested a psychological gimmick he called "faith, fight, finish, family."

"It made the kids believe in something bigger than us, a faith in people around you to do better, that you would have the strength to do what is needed to be successful, to fight through all the adversity that life throws at you," Palombi said.

Despite the negative numbers, he saw some positive signs. He returned 12 starters from last year's 2-7 squad, including 10 on offense. As sophomores, the seniors were 6-3. And the juniors were 6-3 as sophomores. The two classes had a taste of winning.

"The kids were buying into our calling card," Palombi said. "It's not about football but about life. You have to see it to believe it. We're still running the same spread option and three stack defense. We still use the same speed and lifting and conditioning programs.

"I tell the kids to go to the Internet and see what other players are doing. What are your goals? What are your dreams? Look at Thornton and Lincoln-Way East, the perennial powers. They commit. They want to be something."

Palombi said he sat down with his players and talked to each of them.

"What do you want to be and what do you want to do to get there?" he asked them.

"They know what Bloom used to be. The banners from Bloom and Bloom Trail are hanging there. Another factor is how well the basketball team did last year (28-5, fourth place in Class 4A). They have to understand what drove those kids to succeed. For me, the biggest thing is being a part of it."

Bloom overcame adversity from the outset. The quarterback, a two-year starter, transferred to Lincoln-Way West three days before the start of double sessions in August. "We had no idea he was leaving," Palombi said.

Kendall McGinnis, a 6-foot-1, 170-pound junior, stepped in and the Trojans didn't miss a beat. He has passed for more than 700 yards and rushed for 500.

"He was our No. 2 quarterback all summer," Palombi said. "But the team came around him. He directs everything. He sits in the shotgun and has the ball in his hands all the time. He makes great decisions. I'm surprised he took charge so quickly. He even worked out as a tight end in the summer. He has so much maturity. We knew he was capable. He has the tools."

Brantley, a 5-foot-11, 175-pound junior, has rushed for 1,000 yards and scored 12 touchdowns. He rushed for 270 yards against Fenton and 387 yards and five touchdowns against Rich South.

"He was on the sophomore team last year. We knew he was a good runner but we didn't know he had the capability to rush for almost 400 yards in a single game," Palombi said. "We knew he was a good athlete. He has speed and vision and ability to make a cut."

Brantley has come on like gangbusters. He didn't establish himself as the No. 1 running back until Week 3. Up to then, he was sharing the spot with a returning starter. When Palombi had to move the senior to linebacker because of an injury, Brantley stepped up.

Other contributors are 6-foot-2, 185-pound senior defensive back Josiah Dailey, 6-foot-2, 215-pound senior middle linebacker Malcolm Hurt, 6-foot, 228-pound senior center Brandon Rockett, 6-foot, 260-pound senior guard Collis McCloud, 5-foot-10, 230-pound senior guard Alan Hall, 6-foot, 220-pound senior tackleend Jalen Thomas, 5-foot-10, 230-pound tackle Antwan Bluster and 5-foot-9, 230-pound linebacker Mr. Clark.

"Going to practice is a joy," Palombi said. "It is extra special when you make adjustments and they know what you are talking about."

DeLoach, a 5-foot-8, 155-pound senior, is aware of Bloom's history. A sprinter, long jumper and pole vaulter on the track and field team, he is aware of the school's four state championships in the 1950s. And he sees the banner for the 1957 football team hanging in McCann Gym and the team picture displayed outside the gym. "It was the greatest team in Bloom history," he said.

Most of all, he recalls where the program has been and why it has gone from 1-8, 1-8 and 2-7 to 6-3 in the last four years.

"When I was a freshman, they were 1-8 and some kids said they didn't want to play for Bloom. Even students said: 'Why don't you play somewhere else where you can be a winner?' It didn't matter to me. If you keep working hard and work in the off-season, you will do something great," DeLoach said.

"We ignored all the negative talk. We bought into what the coach said. Our motto is: faith, fight, finish, family. We looked at other schools and saw how they came together. In the past, our teams weren't together. But we are together this year."

There were times last summer, however, when DeLoach and his teammates wondered if it was all worthwhile. Palombi put them through countless hours of running, running and more running, long distance runs and sprints.

"It was one of the hottest summers I can think of," DeLoach said. "We were out there every day...800 meters, five times, over 100 degrees. We pushed ourselves to keep going. We had to keep going and not give up. It was very painful at the time, very tiring. It was hard work but it was worth it."

Fast Break Morning Update: Blackhawks beat Avalanche; Bulls lose to Mavericks

Fast Break Morning Update: Blackhawks beat Avalanche; Bulls lose to Mavericks

Preview: Loyola faces Northern Iowa on CSN

Vinnie Hinostroza, rookies pace Blackhawks past Avalanche

Bulls can't answer Wesley Matthews' game-winner in loss to Mavericks

Jon Lester explains absence from Cubs' White House trip: 'Absolutely nothing political'

Five Things from Blackhawks-Avalanche: Great night for the rookies

White Sox prospect Michael Kopech fires a 110 mph max velocity throw

Bears challenged to replace coaches involved in three all-rookie selections

Fire draft two Charlotte 49ers to close out draft

White Sox Talk Podcast: Zack Collins discusses staying at catcher

Illini dominated in ugly blowout loss at Purdue

After loss to Mavs, Wade says Bulls 'keep putting (their) hand on the hot stove every day'

After loss to Mavs, Wade says Bulls 'keep putting (their) hand on the hot stove every day'

Dwyane Wade sounded every bit like a frustrated 35-year old father when talking about the repeated ills and so-called growing pains of his Bulls, as they surrendered yet another game against a sub-.500 team.

Sometimes it's the New York Knicks whom the Bulls are offering temporary refuge. Or maybe the Minnesota Timberwolves as they are all-too-generous to roll out the welcome mat for returning figures to Chicago.

Tuesday it was the Dallas Mavericks, the second-worst team in the Western Conference, who stormed into the United Center and escaped with a 99-98 win, courtesy of Wesley Matthews' triple with 11.7 seconds left followed by him locking down Jimmy Butler on the ensuing possession.

Wade was forced to take a contested 21-footer that went awry, but the Bulls' ills went far beyond the last two possessions, when the Mavericks exploited their strategy yet again.

"Either you learn the lesson or figure out," Wade said. "Keep putting your hand on the hot stove every day.

"We just gotta figure out not to put our hands on that stove. And understand when we come in the kitchen, that stove is hot, don't touch it. As I continue to say, this is a very young team and they have to play in these games and have to go through these moments. The one thing you want, whether it's this year or next year, is to not make the same mistakes."

The Bulls are apparently insistent on touching the stove and keep burning themselves, the most recent time with the confusion or the bad strategy in defending the Mavericks' final offensive possession.

Deron Williams found himself with Nikola Mirotic defending him off a switch from Jimmy Butler. Not the quickest afoot, Mirotic gave Williams an easy path to the basket and Wade was the backside help, not wanting to leave Matthews on the wing for a triple.

But with the bench commanding Wade to help, Williams easily found Matthews for an open 3 as Wade had no help for his man. With the Bulls up two, one could see how Wade didn't want to leave Matthews.

"I'll have to go back and watch, but it looks like Deron got downcourt, Wade went over to help and we didn’t rotate accordingly," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. "We obviously need to do a better job of staying in front of the other end."

Mirotic was supposed to be brought back slowly in his return from strep throat, but he played the entire fourth quarter and 22 minutes overall, having lost eight pounds with his illness that had him miss four games.

[SHOP BULLS: Get your Bulls gear right here]

Their issues were game-long and have been seasonlong as the Mavericks were supposed to absorb a shellacking from a Bulls team that felt a 25-point beatdown in Texas last month.

Instead, they would've been happy with settling for an escape when Butler rose up over his college teammate Matthews for a 20-foot wing jumper with 22.8 seconds left.

Butler nearly added a triple-double and clutch moment to his growing resume with 24 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds but was dogged by Matthews all night, the defender who wouldn't give him airspace, went chest-to-chest and even earned a technical foul when he felt Butler exaggerated some contact in the third quarter.

"He took away my space, wouldn't let me get to my spot," Butler said of Matthews. "Good for him. I should've did something different."

Wade missed 13 of his 21 shots, scoring 17 with five rebounds on his 35th birthday

With scoring at a premium, Robin Lopez had a season-high 21 points being guarded by Dirk Nowitzki — and they were necessary considering the Bulls were without Taj Gibson (ankle injury) and Doug McDermott couldn't repeat his 30-point showing from Sunday in Memphis.

Rick Carlisle has long been regarded as one of the top strategic coaches, and though he doesn't have the usual personnel from the Mavericks' salad days, he had enough tricks up his sleeve to throw the Bulls off.

Six Mavericks scored in double figures, led by Harrison Barnes' 20 points and Seth Curry's 18, as Barnes, Matthews and Curry combined for eight triples — spreading the Bulls out and picking them apart defensively.

The Mavericks started Nowitzki at center, going to an almost all-small lineup. And though Lopez scored 14 points in the first half, trying to feed him seemed to take the Bulls out of it in the second half.

The energy was tardy to the party, as they shot just 41 percent in the first half but woke up a little in the third quarter — continuing their all-too familiar trend of half-hearted efforts against lesser teams.

And it looks like the ever-optimistic Wade is dishing out some realism, probably something that comes with the perspective of turning 35.

"You can't keep getting stressed out or frustrated. We've been going through this all year. We'll get back in in the morning.

"Once you realize who you are, you're better off. I sleep better at night. Once we want to be a better team and start winning games, we will. I'm not mad, I'm not frustrated, I'm not stressed. Just taking the hits."