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H-F punching and counterpunching its ticket to the state finals 

Homewood-Flossmoor boys basketball players (from left) Gakobie McNeal, Dominic Pagnallo, Gianni Cobb, Jayden Tyler, Carson Brownfield and Bryce Heard will lead the Vikings to the school’s first trip to the final four since 2004. (David P.  Funk/HF Chronicle)

Toughness.

It’s a word that repeatedly comes up in conversations with and about the Homewood-Flossmoor boys basketball team this season. Second-year coach Jamere Dismukes has a series of “tough man” drills designed to make his players just that during practice. The Vikings demonstrate that toughness on the court, rarely backing down and always getting back up off the mat. 

“I think they all had that in them. I just brought it out of them,” Dismukes said. “Just watching them go through the rigors of our practice and our offseason schedule, I think that’s where that toughness comes from. Each kid, one through 15, they all have it in them in their hearts. It’s just pressing some buttons to pull it out of them.” 

H-F took several blows that could’ve knocked them out during the run to Friday’s state championship semifinal with New Trier in Champaign. It always punched back.

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One of those counterpunches came in the fourth quarter of the super-sectional against Curie. The Vikings (31-4) were down by 10 with about four minutes to go. A timeout was called.

The team looked at each other during that huddle. Everyone was confident. No one was worried. 

“We just basically said ‘This is the last four minutes of our high school career. Do we want it to be the last four minutes or do we want to go down to U of I, have a good time and win state?’” senior Carson Brownfield said. “We didn’t come this far just to lose. We want to do something that nobody did (at Homewood-Flossmoor) since 2004, something big.” 

Led by guards Jayden Tyler and Gianni Cobb, the Vikings did something big. They won the battle of the state’s Nos. 1 and 2 teams 60-58 to advance to the school’s first state championship in 20 years. 

“With the schedule that we put together this year, they’ve been through almost every circumstance a team can be against. Up against the wall in games, up big and letting people come back, down big in games and letting people come back and win games, games on the road, games at a neutral site, with 200 people in the stands or 2,000 people in the stands,” Dismukes said. “The season prepared these kids for any moment and just knowing that it’s not over until that horn sounds.” 

Maybe the first time Homewood-Flossmoor need to counterpunch came after a 77-47 setback against Gonzaga (Washington D.C.) in the Chicago Elite Classic in December. It was the first loss and it humbled a team whose confidence was sky high.

The Vikings won the next 13 games. 

“(Toughness) is just something that we’ve always had growing up as kids. It’s something we just embrace,” Brownfield said. “Coach (Dismukes) came in and just drilled that into us, that mindset that if you get hit in the mouth don’t just fall down. Get up and fight back.” 

Experience is a part of that resilience. H-F doesn’t have a player who’s been to state before, but it does have eight seniors. Dominic Pangallo said each was sharply aware during the postseason that any game could be their last. 

“When we were down 10, I wasn’t worried at all. We’ve been facing adversity all season. We just know what that environment is,” Pangallo said. “I don’t think any of us are worried. We know what we’re capable of. They hit us with their best punch but we got back up and fought.” 

Gakobie McNeal is especially aware of the fleeting nature of his senior season. He was concussed during the sectional semifinal against Joliet West and missed the next game with Bloom Township. 

“Nothing really fazes us. We keep our calm, especially (Dismukes). He allows us to keep our calm,” McNeal said. “In the locker room, we drop our heads a little bit but then we pick it right back up.” 

H-F’s most important counterpunch, McNeal said, was after the regular-season finale loss to Bolingbrook. It cost them sole possession of the SouthWest Suburban Blue title and was the exact opposite of the way they wanted to enter the state series. 

The Vikings picked themselves up again after that night and have been stellar since, winning close playoff games with Stagg, Joliet West, Bloom and Curie. 

“We been working hard since day one as a team. Everybody thought we couldn’t play together and we proved them wrong,” Cobb said. “We are here, so it’s time to win it all.” 

Standing in the way of winning it all is New Trier (29-7).

Dismukes said he respects Trevians coach Scott Fricke and his system. H-F’s Friday opponent has good shooters and will be expected to try to slow the game down. The Vikings will have a size and athletic advantage, so they’ll likely look to do the opposite. 

It’s the first trip to the state finals in 20 years, but a championship would be the first in school history. The Vikings finished second during that 2004 season and third in 1985.

“I’m not a player anymore, but as a kid (a state championship) was something I always wanted to accomplish,” Dismukes said. “If I can get a state title under my belt, that puts me in a category with some of the best coaches in Illinois high school history. I want to be in that category.” 

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