" Rochelle Zell wasn’t just going to a part of me for four years but for the rest of my life."
By: Chris Walker
“The Chicagoland Jewish High School basketball team won’t win a state trophy this year after falling to Newark, 67-64, during Saturday’s Class 1A Mooseheart sectional championship game.
But they won over the Jewish community, garnered the attention of their classmates and alumni and crafted wonderful memories that will last a lifetime.
Earlier: Dream Season Ends for CJHS in Sectional Final
They truly are champions of their school and their community.
“We talk about building memories that’ll last a lifetime, and life is so short,” Coach Marty Dello. “I’m more proud of our kids on what they do off the court.”
Because of their Jewish faith, the Tigers, thanks to assistance from the Illinois High School Association (IHSA), had Saturday’s game pushed from Friday so they could observe the Sabbath. While that made it possible for them to play for a Sectional title, the team faced an uphill battle which began when they rallied from 11 points down in the fourth quarter to beat Mooseheart on Wednesday.
While every other high school team in the state would’ve practiced on Friday to prepare for a Saturday game, the Tigers could not because of Sabbath. When classes ended on Friday the team had to rush off, fight traffic prayerfully get to a hotel in Naperville before sundown.
Game Day Was About Religion, Not Basketball
A straight trip from Deerfield to Mooseheart on Saturday would not have been possible to complete unless the Tigers left before sundown. They could not do that because of Sabbath and that’s why the team stayed in Naperville.
“The boys got up (Saturday) and had breakfast and then their Sabbath religious services,” Dello said. “Then they went back to the hotel and got some lunch. Normally, for the other teams I’ve coached over the years, we’d have team meetings and scouting reports, but we can’t do that here.”
It didn’t take long for the Tigers to transition from Sabbath to basketball though, and it didn’t take long to get from Naperville to Mooseheart, but it’s going to take a long, long time for the Tigers to forget what they were greeted with at Mooseheart.
While the entire town of Newark appeared to be in the stands, the Chicagoland Jewish fans also made their presence known, many wearing Chicagoland Jewish t-shirts, some holding signs, and others with their faces painted. They were all very vocal.
Tigers Get Warm Greeting at Gym
“Everybody here, and not just us on the team, is not going to forget this weekend and this whole season ever,” said junior Nathaniel Moses. “We had the winningest team ever here and we’re happy to put CJ on the map and to represent the community.”
Brian Pogrund, a 2007 graduate, can remember when the school’s enrollment barely exceeded 75 and classrooms were in trailers in Morton Grove. After watching the come-from-behind victory against Mooseheart via an Internet stream, Pogrund made sure he saw the title game in person.
“My wife and I were jumping up and down on Wednesday so I definitely couldn’t miss the opportunity to come out here tonight,” he said. “To see how far the program has come and to just get to this point is pretty amazing.”
With an enrollment of just 168, most of the students at Chicagoland Jewish know each other and most of them were packed in the stands supporting their Tigers.
Fans Go Crazy for Their Tigers
“We don’t get the same opportunities that big public schools get with football games and dressing up and going crazy,” senior Miranda Smerling, who could’ve easily passed as a cheerleader with her colorful team attire, said. “Tonight we get to get all decked out and go crazy and I think all the fans are enjoying this as much as the guys are playing.”
“When you have such a small school like this, we’re all close to the players,” junior Rachel Small said. “It’s huge pride for the school and a lot of fun to celebrate with the boys. We’re all good friends.”
Sophomore Josh Newlander, who led the Tigers with 22 points in the season-ending loss, still has two more years of high school basketball remaining, but he won’t forget the past week.
“We built a lot of chemistry and bonded a lot,” he said. “This is probably the best memories any of us have ever had so far. As a sophomore, this has been crazy for me. It’s my first year on the team and the guys treat me like family. I couldn’t be more appreciative with everything that has happened.”
Basketball Future Looks Bright
And it might happen again as 51 of the 64 points scored by the Tigers in Saturday’s loss were from sophomores and juniors, all who should be back next winter. But, that’s still many, many months away. For now, the focus is still on celebrating the accomplishments of this year’s Tigers.
“This has been a God Bless America fact that the IHSA was prepared and gracious with our school to accommodate us to be here tonight,” School Board President Michael Small said.
“And Mooseheart has been such a gracious host and for us this is really very rconsistent with out mission, excellence and relevance of our religious values and those are things we try to take on the court,” Small added.
While their 22-4 record proved impressive, it pales in comparison to what they’ve done for the Jewish community.
“Our kids have done more for the Jewish community and Chicagoland Jewish High School then any other academy or team in the history of our school,” Dello said. “I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to bring for the recognition to the Jewish religion.” “
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