Tiny Leo High School Seeks Historic Football Win in State Playoffs
But the seniors, who were both born in 1996, have helped lead the Lions back to the Elite Eight with a driven mindset that began well before the regular season started.
"I knew we had a great group of players," said Hopkins, a running back and cornerback from Chatham, whose 9-2 Lions face top-seeded Ottawa Marquette (11-0) on Saturday afternoon in a Class A matchup. "It's just a wonderful feeling being there and putting Leo back on the map."
Before the season started, the Lions set a goal of attaining a feat achieved by only one other Leo squad: the 1990 outfit that would prevail in the state quarterfinals before dropping a 27-12 decision to Mike Alstott's Joliet Catholic team in the semifinals. Alstott later starred in the NFL.
Over the summer, the Lions traveled to Rantoul, Ill., for a brutal four-day Leadership Development Camp guided by head coach Michael Holmes. In Rantoul, about 10 miles north of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, the Lions lifted weights and conducted team drills like finding ways to flip Monster-truck-sized tires.
But mainly they sprinted, sweating profusely in the heat.
"There were no trees, and the sun never stopped," said Bell, a 250-pound defensive tackle and fullback from Washington Heights.
"The experience helped emphasize the idea of team more than ever, and it's paid off," said Holmes, of Jackson Highlands, a former three-sport star at Leo who was an all-Big Ten tailback at the U. of I.
The season has been an extension of the successful training camp. The Lions started 7-0, including victories at Hales Franciscan, Fenton and Gordon Tech during those schools' homecoming games. Leo dropped its final two regular-season tilts, to far-larger schools Bishop McNamara and Mount Carmel, but beat Gibson City and Stark County in the playoffs to advance to Saturday's matchup.
Leo has had success in other sports, winning seven team state championships (including the last two years) in boys track, and the Lions have a boys basketball crown as well.
But the South Side Catholic school, with a minuscule enrollment of 143, has never won the top football prize.
Bell, who has 102 tackles, and Hopkins, who has 851 yards and 12 total touchdowns, are both obsessed with the pigskin. They each want to earn a degree in sports medicine and work as athletic trainers on the sidelines.
And they think this is the year Leo wins it all.
"We've been working so hard," Bell said. "It would mean everything in the world."
Leo High School faces Ottawa Marquette at St. Laurence High School — 5556 W. 77th St. in southwest suburban Burbank — at 2 p.m. Saturday.