Benet basketball coach Gene Heidkamp insists he "never got caught up worrying about him getting injured" when his star player, 6-foot-9, 240-pound junior Sean O'Mara, lined up at left offensive tackle for the Redwings' football team last fall.
But you have to believe he had his fingers crossed. In fact, four of Heidkamp's top basketball players played football for the Lisle school's 11-2 team that advanced to the Class 7A semifinals.
"I knew Sean wanted to play football," Heidkamp said. "It was good for our school for what the football team. And Sean was a big part of it. But he isn't going to college to play football. He is going to college to play basketball. But he enjoyed being a part of the football team's success."
O'Mara enjoyed it so much, in fact, that if he had the opportunity, he would like to play football and basketball in college. Realistically, however, he knows that isn't in the cards.
"I love to play football," O'Mara said. "It isn't my No. 1 sport but I won't give it up as long as I don't have to. I would like to play football in college if I could but I don't think it will work out."
O'Mara has played in the offensive and defensive lines and also defensive end. The only positions he hasn't played are cornerback, safety and running back. At 6-foot-6, he played quarterback in eighth grade.
As a freshman at Benet, he played left offensive tackle and defensive end and also was a kicker. As a sophomore, he started at left tackle, defensive end and tight end. After four games, he was moved up to the varsity and started at left tackle.
"It's fun to play left tackle," said O'Mara, who doesn't have to be reminded that it is one of the highest priority of all positions in college and professional football. "It is fun to be physical. You are in the trenches with four other guys. And I'm defending my four-man in basketball, (widely recruited quarterback) Jack Beneventi.
"I enjoy both sports. You can't foul out in football. You can be as aggressive as you want. I realize my future is in basketball. I enjoy it more. It is one of those things that every day you love going to practice and the games. Football can be a grind at times with the long off-season and one game a week. Basketball is a long season, lots of games and practice every day. I don't get sick of basketball."
O'Mara wore jersey No. 75 last fall. He will wear No. 54 next season because it was his mother's basketball number growing up. In basketball, he wears No. 45 only because the team doesn't have No. 54. For the time being, that is.
"If we win the state championship, the coach said he'll get me a No. 54 jersey for next year," O'Mara said.
Benet is off to a good start in that direction. After overwhelming previously unbeaten St. Ignatius 44-31 and crushing Urban Prep West 64-44 in the opening round of the Proviso West Holiday Tournament, the Redwings will carry an 11-2 record into their second-round match-up against Morton on Thursday.
The leaders are O'Mara (18 ppg, 6 rpg) and 6-foot-5 senior Pat McInerney (11 ppg, 9 rpg). McInerney missed half of last season with a broken wrist but started as a sophomore on a 29-1 team that lost to East Aurora and Ryan Boatright in the sectional. He will play baseball at Illinois.
O'Mara has other plans. He already has accumulated scholarship offers to play basketball at more than 20 schools, including Illinois, DePaul, Loyola, Illinois-Chicago, Georgia Tech, Virginia, Iowa State, Marquette, Xavier, Boston College and St. Louis. The list will only get longer.
"He will only get better," Heidkamp said. "He has a good low post game. He is physical on the block and he is a good passer out of the post. He is unselfish. He will be a more dominant scorer this year. The offense goes through him. He creates shots for other players."
O'Mara is comfortable with his role. He knows what he has to do to improve his skills and he knows what college coaches are looking for. He describes himself as a "throwback back-to-the-basket center" who is able to bang down low and use his body as an offensive weapon, like a left offensive tackle in basketball. "I can push guys around. Football has helped me to be more physical," he said.
"I'm comfortable at averaging 15 points per game. But I'm working on expanding my range as a big man. I'm also working on seeing the game before it happens, reacting to what is happening next. I want to be able to play the game at higher speed, like I will have to do in college."
O'Mara and McInerney are two of four returnees back from last year's 21-7 team that lost to Metea Valley by one point in the regional final. In his fifth year, Heidkamp has guided Benet to a 83-13 record in the last three-plus years. It reminds old-timers of the great success of Bill Geist's teams in the 1970s and 1980s.
Under Geist, Benet won 20 or more games for 12 seasons in a row. But the Redwings enjoyed their most celebrity in 1976-79 when Kevin Conrad, Mike Lang & Co. went 27-4, 27-1 and 30-3. They lost in the supersectional in 1977 and 1978 and finished third in Class AA in 1979.
For all of their accomplishments, however, they never won at Proviso West, settling for the consolation prize in 1978. Heidkamp's 2010 squad, led by Mike Kaminsky and Dave Sobolewski, won the big trophy at Proviso West.
O'Mara thinks the 2012-13 squad can do as well or better. "We have the most depth that I have seen since I've been at Benet. Guys who don't get in the games could come in and do great things for our team," he said.
Other valuable contributors are 6-foot-4 senior Jack Euritt (7 ppg), 6-foot-2 senior Jack Toner, another football player who is the team's defensive specialist, and 5-foot-11 junior point guard Colin Pelletieri (5 ppg), who runs the show and handles pressure, and 5-foot-11 senior Eddie Eshoo (8 ppg), an excellent perimeter shooter.
In a 47-42 victory over Lockport, Benet rallied from a 39-32 deficit as Eshoo scored a career-high 16 points, including four three-pointers. He made the go-ahead shot with 2:30 to play.
Eshoo scored 14 in the 44-31 victory over St. Ignatius, including four three-pointers. O'Mara had 17 points and eight rebounds. He scored his team's first 10 points of the second half as Benet snapped St. Ignatius' seven-game winning streak.
At Proviso West last Saturday, Benet sprinted to a 15-0 lead against Urban Prep West, built a 31-point advantage and coasted into the second round of the 32-team event. O'Mara shot 5-of-5 in the first half and finished with a team-high of 11 points. McInerney had 10 points and nine rebounds. Eshoo scored eight.
"We have two excellent post players," Heidkamp said. "I want to see our perimeter players get better and see them jell more as ateam at both ends of the floor. We can get better defensively, too."
In Benet's recent five-games-in-five days meat-grinder of a schedule, O'Mara noticed how the bench got deeper, how inexperienced players stepped up and handled pressure and made shots and did good things. It was an unprecedented stretch but it turned out to be more positive than negative.
"It exposed our weaknesses," O'Mara said. "That wasn't a bad thing. We know what we need to work on, handling pressure and being able to finish and crash the offensive glass. It also showed we should have been 5-0 in that stretch instead of 4-1 and showed we haven't reached our full potential yet."
Interestingly, Kevin Conrad is one of Heidkamp's varsity assistants. He and O'Mara have frequent conversations about what it takes to get to the state finals. Heidkamp, who played and coached under legendary coach Max Kurland at St. Patrick and also assisted current St. Patrick coach Mike Bailey for 12 years before being hired at Benet, also knows what it takes.
"Conrad has the state tournament hardware to prove it," Heidkamp said. "We have been close but it doesn't get you very far."