A year ago, Riverside-Brookfield's basketball team was 23-6 but Damonta Henry wasn't a part of it. He suffered a broken finger while leaping to block a shot in practice and was forced to sit out until the regional tournament. All he could do was look forward to the 2011-12 season.
"It was pretty frustrating. I couldn't help my teammates. I knew I could help them but I couldn't shoot or dribble," Henry said. "I wanted to work hard in the off-season to get better and help my team go Downstate."
The 5-foot-11 junior point guard dreams of playing in the Big 10. But he said his ball-handling was "kind of shaky," the result of not handling the ball for an entire year. His cross-over dribble wasn't so sharp until he began to watch NBA stars Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook on YouTube.
"I looked at their moves, then went into the gym and practiced them," Henry said. "I see if I can perfect them and use them against people when they guard me. I work on the in-and-out cross-cover dribble that Rose uses. He breaks a lot of ankles. I practice it a lot.
"I fell in love with it when I first saw it and I practice it like crazy in the gym. I watched him against Tyreke Evans in an all-star game when he was a senior at Simeon. It froze the defense. It really caught my eye. I've been working on it and I do it pretty good."
Henry, who is averaging 17 points and four assists per game, has emerged as Riverside-Brookfield's floor leader. In last Tuesday's 72-44 rout of Elmwood Park, Henry scored 14 points for the Metro Suburban leader. The Bulldogs are 17-4 going into Tuesday's game against Timothy Christian. They will play at Glenbrook South on Friday.
"He is the guy who steers the ship," coach Tom McCloskey said. "We need him to have a great last month of the season. There is a lot of pressure on him but he is capable of handling it. He is very versatile. Potentially, he is a Division I point guard."
Henry takes his playmaking and leadership responsibilities very seriously. "I'm playing pretty good in my state of mind. When I'm off, I find my teammates. It isn't about statistics. It's all about winning and finding my open teammates instead of carrying the whole load," he said.
"Each player isn't afraid to take on a challenge. Even though mistakes might happen, they keep their heads high. Our mindset is to go get it and take no one lightly. If we keep it up, we can take it past the regional and go to state."
It will take more than confidence, of course, to punch a ticket to Peoria. R-B hasn't won a sectional title since the west suburban school opened in 1907. McCloskey has won two regionals in a row. He also won in 2002, the school's first title since 1974.
In his second tour of duty at R-B, McCloskey admits he has a better handle on what it takes to win at a school that traditionally has had to battle such traditional powers as Proviso East, Lyons and St. Joseph in its own neighborhood.
A 1972 graduate of R-B, he coached four losing teams at his alma mater from 1990 to 1994. His last two teams were 4-20. He went to Downers Grove North and Hinsdale Central, then was head coach at Montini for four years before returning to R-B in 2001.
His last three teams were 22-6, 24-3 and 23-6. Last year's team lost to Crane in the sectional final. Two years ago, R-B lost to Marshall in overtime in the sectional. This year's team, which has won 10 games in a row, figures to draw a high seed in the Class 3A sectional at Glenbard South, perhaps the most competitive in the state.
"I came in and had a talented group and had an amazing first year. We beat Lyons twice and they had finished fourth in the state tournament the year before," McCloskey said. "Most of these kids have chosen R-B rather than Fenwick or St. Joseph or Nazareth. Now we're attracting good kids."
R-B doesn't have a large area to draw from--Harlem to Kenman, Ogden to 22nd Street, a few miles wide, top to bottom. But McCloskey has persuaded his players to attend summer camps and participate in the Junior Bulldog program. More kids seem to want to be a part of the success. The school has won 10 conference titles in a row.
"We've put together a nice stretch but we are young," McCloskey said. "We're playing a lot of juniors and we have to work on consistency. We don't put teams away like we should when we get leads. We hope playing the regional at R-B will give us an advantage."
With no starters returning from last year's team -- Henry would have started as a sophomore if he hadn't been injured -- McCloskey wasn't sure what to look for in 2011-12. But after winning three of four games against good competition at the York Holiday Tournament and playing a tough early schedule that included Farragut and St. Ignatius, he saw confidence growing.
Now it all seems to be coming together with Henry, 6-foot-7 junior Miki Ljuboja (14.4 ppg, 8.6 rpg), 6-foot junior Eric Loury (4 ppg), 6-foot-3 senior Luke Nortier (12.2 ppg) and 6-foot-4 senior Louis Marino (5 ppg). Top reserves are 6-foot-2 senior Andrew Hanley (5 ppg) and 6-foot-2 junior Liam Lesniak (4 ppg).
Ljuboja is a budding star who will become a real force when he gets stronger, McCloskey predicts. He is a future Division I prospect who is getting early interest from Loyola and Illinois-Chicago. He scored 12 points in the victory over Elmwood Park.
"Damonta's playmaking and Miki's inside play are the keys for us. And the others understand their roles," McCloskey said, summing up R-B's success story.
Henry also played football when he was young but he stopped playing football after his freshman year to concentrate on basketball. "I was a running back and quarterback. But I like being on the hardwood. It puts a smile on my face. Scoring and doing moves to get my teammates open or to help me get to the basket gives me a big thrill. Nothing in football was comparable," he said.
It finally dawned on Henry that he might have Division I potential when he was playing for the Illinois Hurricanes' AAU team last summer in tournaments at R-B and in Milwaukee.
"I was hitting tough shots and creating and getting through small holes. I knew I could play with the big boys," he said.
Like his coach, he realized his team also had big-time potential at the York tournament. "I didn't play that well. I had a terrible time with my shooting, only 5 of 15 threes. But my teammates picked me up. They knocked down shots when we needed them. They carried the load. I didn't need to. That told me that we are a good team," he said.