Preps Talk

Bryce Gray: Homewood-Flossmoor's consummate leader

Bryce Gray: Homewood-Flossmoor's consummate leader

All Bryce Gray wanted was to be the quarterback of the Homewood-Flossmoor Vikings.

Growing up in Flossmoor, Ill., minutes from the high school he soon will call his alma mater, a young Bryce could look out his bedroom window and see the lights of the football stadium on campus and dream about his future. While his classmates and friends were idolizing collegiate and professional players, Bryce was watching in awe as a talented crop of high school student-athletes came through Homewood-Flossmoor High School and dominated on the gridiron, diamond and hardwood. He hoped that one day he'd get his chance to replicate that.

"I idolized those guys," Bryce recalls. "I wanted to be them. I wanted to be in their situation."

His father, Jason, realized when Bryce was young sports were going to be a major part of his oldest son's life. Bryce and his brother, Chase, routinely came in to their parents' room to watch cartoons, but one morning something was different. Bryce's mother, Kathy, woke up to see 4-year-old Bryce not watching cartoons, but sports. His father had been watching a golf tournament over the weekend, and Bryce had been keeping a close eye, wanting to know Monday morning who had won. Soon after, cartoons went away for good and were replaced by the morning edition of SportsCenter.

Bryce's love for sports came complete with broken light bulbs in the house from errant balls, and he even accidentally hit his brother in the face with one of the golf clubs his parents had purchased for him. He also tried basketball, karate, wrestling and soccer in search of his true passion. His first organized football game at running back he tripped untouched at the 1-yard-line. Twice he took trips to Cooperstown, NY for baseball tournaments, and he went to Florida three times for national football tournaments.

As organized sports became part of his daily routine, his father also began taking Bryce to high school sporting events.

Bryce watched as Julian Wright turned in an All-American basketball season in 2005. He marveled as quarterback Russell Ellington (2007) and defensive end Michael Buchanan (2009) both earned scholarships to the University of Illinois after excelling with the Vikings. He remembered watching forward Tim Williams lead his basketball team to a regional title in 2012 before committing to play at Samford University.

[RELATED: Why Homewood-Flossmoor plays for each other]

A member of the Jr. Vikings, HF's Pee Wee football feeder team, Bryce couldn't wait to succeed the same way his idols had. Even his mother admitted that when Bryce would go to games, he'd sit intently in the stands while his friends goofed around. While parents socialized, Bryce was watching the way quarterbacks and point guards interacted with their coaches, and how those players relayed calls to the rest of the team. He watched how they led.

"He sat there and watched the games," Kathy recalls. "He studied the game."

He was also studying the people in the stands. And one night in 2010, there was a new face in the basketball crowd. Weeks earlier Craig Buzea had been named the head coach of the varsity football team, and he was introduced with a brief ceremony at halftime.

It was around that time Bryce's father had begun instilling in him the importance of being self-confident, speaking up and looking adults in the eye. What better opportunity to test those skills out than introducing himself to the head varsity football coach? Late in the fourth quarter of the basketball game, Bryce made his move. And made a statement.

"Hi, Coach. I'm Bryce Gray," the 11-year-old 6th grader told Buzea. "And I'm going to be your quarterback in a few years."

There's leadership, and then there's Bryce Gray.

Over the course of a season Craig Buzea attempts to find room for as many different seniors to act as captains as a reward for their hard work. But there's an exception.

"Bryce is the only one that has been a captain every game since his junior year," Buzea says proudly. "When we go to the captains No. 6 is going to be part of that whole deal. He's the guy you want representing us."

There's an inevitable responsibility that comes with playing quarterback, let alone for one of the top programs in the state. Leadership was going to find Bryce Gray. So he found it first.

It began his junior year, five years after introducing himself and proclaiming his future, when he made good on his statement to Buzea and was named Homewood-Flossmoor's starting quarterback. A year earlier Buzea had made the decision to bring Bryce up to the varsity level, a difficult decision for the head coach considering it was likely Bryce, a sophomore, wouldn't see much playing time behind senior Isaac Cutrara. As a freshman Bryce had led the Vikings to a 9-0 season, including a 40-point win over Lincoln-Way East after the Griffins' athletic director dubbed his freshman team the best the school had seen in a decade.

[#DriveVikings: Practice facilities a 'wonderful addition' for Homewood-Flossmoor]

That sophomore season acted as a redshirt year, as Bryce once again soaked in all he could, just as he had done in the stands a few years earlier. He learned Buzea's terminology, worked diligently in practice and watched as Cutrara led the Vikings to a 9-2 season.

"I saw how he conducted himself, how he prepared, how he dealt with failure," Bryce recalls of Cutrara. "Those things I've incorporated into my game, which has only made me better. My sophomore year was tough because I didn't get to play, but it's the best thing that could have happened to me."

Bryce stepped in as a junior and didn't skip a beat. Ironically enough, he knew he had arrived the night of the "worst game of my career." In his first true start, the Vikings battled top-ranked Stevenson, dropping a 33-24 contest that was finished Saturday morning after inclement weather Friday night. Bryce threw for 247 yards and a pair of scores but lost a 17-point, second-half lead.

Bryce rallied his troops following a 3-2 start that included a loss to rival Lincoln-Way East. The team began to mesh, Bryce carried on a tradition Cutrara had started of making Sunday dinners for his offensive line when they didn't allow a sack in Friday's game, and the Vikings reeled off eight straight wins to reach the 8A state title game, a year earlier than expected with a core group of juniors.

When the unthinkable happened - the Vikings fumbled away a chance at a title at the 3-yard-line in the 8A championship's final minute - the Vikings needed to know their signal caller could respond the following year. He would.

"When stuff goes bad, everyone turns to him," offensive line coach Tom Cicero said. "I don’t care if you’re Desmond Bland, Deante Harley-Hampton. When stuff is just not there, eyes are looking right at him and he responds. He is by far one of the best leaders I’ve been around in high school football. He’s a special kid."

Before coaches address the team each Friday night, Bryce stands in front of his teammates and relays his own message. The locker room is silent. Buzea calls his quarterback "an extension of myself" on the field. A rare player with three years of varsity experience, Bryce knows the offense as well as any quarterback in the state could know his coach's philosophy, and his team trusts him to execute.

Execute is exactly what he's done as a senior. In 12 games, Bryce passed for 2,621 yards, 26 touchdowns and just one interception. He was the first to greet his teammates after every touchdown - the Vikings found the end zone 81 times this season - and was the team's biggest cheerleader when the second unit is in. He leads in the classroom with a 3.48 GPA and has a contagious ear-to-ear smile you'd be hard-pressed to see him without. And why wouldn't he smile? He's got his dream job.

"Bryce is just respected by all. He's a good person. He just does things right," Buzea says. "I pinch myself every day that I have an opportunity to really coach a kid like this. It's a once-in-a-lifetime situation to get to coach him."

During a weather delay on Homecoming, many of the Vikings rested in the school's gymnasium while they anxiously waited for storms to pass. Others played catch, some spoke with coaches, while a few zoned out and listened to music. Bryce? He found assistant coach Alex Pratt's son, Xavier, and played around with the youngster, exchanging genuine smiles and laughs all the while.

"You," coach Pratt said to Bryce with a smile, shaking his head, "really do it all."

Two weeks ago Bryce Gray received an unexpected phone call that changed his life.

It was Notre Dame assistant baseball coach Jesse Woods.

"I want you to get down here as soon as you can," Bryce recalls Woods telling him over the phone.

Four months earlier Bryce had attended a three-day summer camp at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., performing well enough as a catcher for the Irish to show serious interest in him. Bryce, a two-year starter on the varsity level playing both first base and catcher, already held offers from Villanova, Holy Cross and Dartmouth, as well as a football offer from Valparaiso.

There was a caveat with the Irish, however. They had no more scholarships to offer, though Woods told him at the summer camp he'd be the first recruit they called if a spot opened up.

So when that phone call came, Bryce jumped at the opportunity. A few days later he and his father took the 85-mile drive to South Bend, where Woods formally offered Bryce a scholarship offer after meeting with coaches, academic advisors and touring the facilities.

What struck Bryce most on that tour wasn't the golden baseball helmets, the 2,500-seat Frank Eck Stadium or the majestic 1,250-acre campus.

It was a story Woods told. Matt Scioscia, the son of current Angels manager Mike Scioscia, played for the Irish from 2008 to 2010. He was selected by the Angels in the 45th round of the 2011 MLB Draft and played in the minor leagues until 2014. Woods met Scioscia on a recruiting trip last year in Southern California and asked if the former first baseman had received help in the business world using his well-known last name.

He hadn't, Scioscia told Woods. Rather, he called five different alumni clubs in California and immediately received the numbers of five different CEOs who had graduated from Notre Dame, one of whom became his employer.

"At that moment I knew this is where I wanted to be," Bryce, who committed shortly after the visit, said. "(Notre Dame) can set me up for so many opportunities in my life beyond sports. I'll be getting an education from one of the best institutions in the world."

[MORE: Homewood-Flossmoor shows what 'Viking Tough' is all about]

His passion and love for baseball was an easy one. His father played collegiately at the University of Illinois for two seasons and coached Bryce on his little league teams that traveled the country to compete. Jason would take his eldest son to U.S. Cellular Field to watch Bryce's favorite player, Paul Konerko, and the White Sox. Ever a student of the game, Bryce would keep score and even attempt to steal opposing team's signs.

His diligent work in baseball came full-circle in July when he was selected to take part in the Double Duty Classic, an event at U.S. Cellular Field featuring inner-city high school baseball players that celebrated the history of Negro League baseball. With his family and Buzea in attendance, and playing alongside teammate Percy Walters, Bryce hit a single and stole a base, playing on the same diamond as one of his heroes, living out a dream.

The weekend-long event also featured student-athletes of the Double Duty Classic running clinics for Chicago Park District youth. Bryce called that part of the weekend just as special, remembering how he had watched from afar as his high-school heroes inspired him to be great.

"Seeing those kids, they would come in and look at us like, 'Yeah, we want to be that.' To help those kids is something, a feeling you can't get doing anything else," he said. "Knowing I gave back to the community, I've given back to these kids, I know I've helped them out some way. It felt good."

All Bryce Gray wanted was to be the quarterback of the Homewood-Flossmoor Vikings.

Years later, he's the captain of the football team. He's a student well-liked and respected by everyone who meets him. He's a baseball star headed to Notre Dame in less than a year.

His accolades and attributes stand out among those of his peers, and yet in a student body of roughly 2,800 kids, he's simply Bryce. It's his best trait, Buzea admits.

Behind his cannon of an arm, his pencil-thin mustache, and his pearly-white smile is a 17-year-old kid living out his dreams because of the hard work he committed himself to years ago sitting in the stands at Homewood-Flossmoor High School. But he hasn't done it alone.

He's his younger brother's biggest fan at gymnastics meets, frequently showing his teammates video of his sibling's accomplishments. His mother, a special education teacher, provides him a unique perspective on life and an outlet to discuss everything happening in his own life, instilling in him life lessons he'll use "for the rest of my life. I can talk to her about everything."

His father has been his biggest fan, waiting for him to return home after every game to discuss the highs and the lows. The countless number of batting practice balls he threw to Bryce growing up, the sacrifice he made, is the reason he'll be wearing a Notre Dame jersey a year from now, Bryce acknowledges.

"Everything good that's happened to me," Bryce remarks of his family, "is because of them."

[MORE: The 'machine' that is the Homewood-Flossmoor offense]

His parents have seen a leader grow up before their eyes, too. The Vikings run the football nearly 70 percent of the time, but Bryce's mother's eyes are always on her son. Her favorite attribute is the way Bryce "takes a leadership role with his teammates, whether they've had a good series or bad series." Bryce's father watches as he stays composed no matter the situation, discussing strategy with Buzea on the sidelines the same way he spoke to the head coach as a middle schooler.

The 2015 Homewood-Flossmoor Vikings won't soon be forgotten. One of the state's all-time great offenses is led by a quarterback mature beyond his years with numbers to rival those of any other signal caller in the state.

"I want them to look at me as a kid who was dedicated to making his team better," Bryce says. "A kid who did whatever he needed to do on the field, off the field, to win, to help put his team in the best situation to win."

Bryce and the Vikings didn't accomplish their ultimate goal of winning a state championship, falling Saturday afternoon to top-seeded Loyola, 34-28. Bryce said after the game he had hoped to have gone down in Homewood-Flossmoor history as champions. But the reality was a trophy wasn't necessary. Bryce and the 2015 Vikings will be remembered. How could anyone forget?

The path from the Homewood-Flossmoor Vikings locker room to their home field is open to the public. Passersby shout cheers to the team and families give one final well-wish to their sons.

There's also a group of Jr. Vikings who make their way over to the procession, just waiting to catch a close-up glimpse of their favorite players.

And as those kids stick out their hands, hoping for an acknowledgement from their idols, Bryce Gray is there to high-five every last one of them.

His reasoning couldn't be more simple, and it couldn't be more heartfelt.

"I remember," Bryce says with a smile, "when I was young doing the exact same thing."

Boys Basketball Playoffs begin on busy week of High School Lites

Boys Basketball Playoffs begin on busy week of High School Lites

High School Lites is down to the final week of the regular season in local high school hoops as the Class 3A and 4A schools finish up conference play. The boys basketball playoffs have also started as the Class 1A and Class 2A regional championships will be played on Friday night.

The girls basketball Class 1A and 2A state semifinals will also be featured. You can catch all of those games on NBC Sports Chicago on Friday beginning at 11 a.m. with the 1A semifinals. High School Lites will air Friday night at 11 p.m. on NBC Sports Chicago

East Aurora at No. 11 West Aurora, 7:00 p.m. -- These two rivals meet for the 225th time. The Blackhawks (20-4, 9-0) won the first matchup by 22 points as they try to finish the season on a 12-game winning streak. 

Jacobs at Dundee-Crown, 7:00 p.m. -- Fox Valley rivals match up as Jacobs tries to go unbeaten in the conference. The Eagles (23-3, 15-0) has been playing very well as they've won 20 of 21 games heading into this one -- including an earlier win against Dundee-Crown. The Chargers (14-11, 10-4) has won seven consecutive games since dropping to the Golden Eagles as they're second in the Fox Valley heading into this one. 

Yorkville at DeKalb, 7:00 p.m. -- The top two teams in the Northern Illinois Big 12 East play in this one. DeKalb (16-11, 11-1) has already clinched a share of the conference title as the team's only league loss has come against Yorkville. The Foxes (17-8, 10-2) knocked off DeKalb at their place on Feb. 3 as they try to win again to get a piece of the division title. 

T.F. North at Lemont, 7:00 p.m. -- Two of the better teams in the South Suburban Blue battle on the eve of the playoffs. Lemont (17-8, 9-3) has picked up three straight wins entering this one. T.F. North (11-9, 9-3) is trying to build some momentum after recent close losses to Hillcrest and T.F. South.

Carmel at No. 10 Benet, 7:30 p.m. -- The ESCC closes out its season with this one. Benet (22-4, 7-1) is coming off a nice road win at Marian Catholic earlier this week. Carmel (17-10, 4-4) knocked off Joliet Catholic during the week as they've been a dangerous team in the ESCC. 

Class 2A Boys Basketball Regional Championships

Leo vs. Marshall, 6 p.m. -- The Lions are the favorites but the Commandos are the host of this regional title game. Leo (20-5, 8-0) has a 13-game winning streak as they won the Catholic League White. Marshall (8-17, 4-5) struggled in the win column but they were a competitive 4-5 in a very deep Public League Red-South. 

Uplift vs. Northridge, 7 p.m. -- This should be an interesting battle as Uplift is playing on the road at Northridge. Uplift (17-9, 6-3) has played an extremely competitive schedule that includes a recent close loss to No. 1 Simeon as Kansas commit Markese Jacobs and senior forward Toraze Dobbs are one of the best combinations in the Class 2A field. Northridge (22-5, 12-0) went unbeaten in the Independent School League this season as they're riding a 13-game winning streak.

Class 1A Boys Basketball Regional Championships 

Aurora Christian vs. Harvest Christian, 7 p.m. -- These two teams play for the third time this season in what should be an interesting regional title game. Aurora Christian (23-1, 10-0) is the host as they only lost to Winnebago this season. The Eagles beat Harvest Christian twice in a six-day span in December. Harvest Christian (18-8, 8-2) finished third in the Northeastern Athletic as they played the second game within two points. 

Class 1A Girls Basketball State Semifinals

Okaw Valley vs. Stockton, 11 a.m., NBC Sports Chicago -- Okaw Valley (29-5) is making its first state appearance after winning its first regional title in school history. Stockton (31-2) finished under .500 last season (13-15) and had an amazing turnaround that includes a current 15-game winning streak. 

Lebanon vs. Schlarman, 12:45 p.m., NBC Sports Chicago -- These two teams have combined for two losses this season as this should be a good one. Lebanon (31-1) just won its first sectional title in school history as they've now moved on to state. Schlarman (31-1) is led by junior Anaya Peoples, a Notre Dame commit and five-star prospect in the Class of 2019. 

Class 2A Girls Basketball State Semifinals

Harlan vs. Eureka, 5:30 p.m., NBC Sports Chicago -- Two red-hot teams play in the first semifinal in Class 2A. Harlan (25-6) is riding a 12-game winning streak as this is its first appearance at state for girls basketball. Eureka (28-3) has a 19-game winning streak as they make their first state appearance since 1988.

Marshall vs. Teutopolis, 7:15 p.m., NBC Sports Chicago -- Two storied programs in the state match up in this one. Marshall (20-7) will be making its 21st state appearance as head coach Dorothy Gaters is one of the most storied coaches in Illinois. Teutopolis is making its 17th appearance at state as the Lady Shoes (28-6) seek their first title since 1995. 

Check out the AP boys basketball polls as regular season winds down

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NBC SPORTS

Check out the AP boys basketball polls as regular season winds down

Here is the latest AP boys basketball polls. The girls basketball polls are done with the playoffs underway in all four classes.

Class 4A

School                                 W-L       Pts   Prv

1. Simeon (9)                      25-3      90    1

2. Belleville West                23-2      75    3

3. Curie                                22-3      74     2

4. Danville                           23-2      67      4

5. Whitney Young               22-7     52     T5

6. Normal West                   21-6     28     T5

7. Quincy                              19-4      21     T10

8. Bloomington                   18-7      15     8

9. Evanston                          20-5      14     7

10. New Trier                       22-3       12     NR

Others receiving votes: Moline 11, Niles North 10, Lisle (Benet Academy) 10, St. Viator 5, Naperville North 4, Maine South 2, Rockford Jefferson 1.

Class 3A

School                                            W-L          Pts    Prv

1. Morgan Park (7)                       18-9         88     2

2. Springfield Southeast (2)        22-3         82     1

3. Marian Catholic                        20-4         67     4

4. Hillcrest                                      21-5         57     5

(tie) Springfield Lanphier             22-3         57     3

6. Alton Marquette                       28-0         44      6

7. Centralia                                    21-4          32      7

8. DePaul College Prep                20-6          31      8

9. Champaign Central                  17-7          13      10

10. Decatur MacArthur                 18-8         9        NR

Others receiving votes: Lincoln 6, Burlington Central 6, Bogan 3.

Class 2A

School                                       W-L          Pts     Prv

1. Orr (11)                                 23-4         110     1

2. Warsaw West Hancock      22-2         83       3

3. Pinckneyville                       25-3         76       T4

4. Winnebago                          24-2         75       2

5. Monticello                            22-1         69       6

6. Leo                                        19-5         65       T4

7. Bloomington Central Catholic       21-6         42   8

8. Effingham St. Anthony                    25-3         23   7

9. Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley               24-3         12   NR

10. Trenton Wesclin                             24-4         9     NR

Others receiving votes: Eldorado 7, Corliss 6, St. Joseph-Ogden 6, Bureau Valley 5, Uplift 5 Teutopolis 4, Williamsville 3, Quincy Notre Dame 2, Farmington  2, Casey-Westfield 1

Class 1A

School                                      W-L          Pts      Prv

1. Aurora Christian (9)            22-1        108      1

2. DePue (1)                              24-2        85        2

3. East Dubuque (1)                26-3        80        4

4. Annawan                              25-3        75        5

5. Payson Seymour                 26-2        68        3

6. Sterling Newman                 23-4       57        6

7. Colfax Ridgeview                  24-4       48        7

8. New Berlin                             25-3       33        8

9. Cairo                                       21-5       22        9

10. Nokomis                              21-7         9        NR

Others receiving votes: Newark 8, Quest Academy 5, Milford 4, Cissna Park 2. Okawville 1.