JOLIET – Twice in his four varsity seasons at Joliet Catholic, wingback Ty Isaac lived that last moment, playing in a state championship game. On Saturday, he spoke of those Hillmen moments that will last.
As Montini celebrated its come-from-behind 40-37 victory in the Class 5A state semifinals, Isaac stood at midfield of Memorial Stadium and searched for the perspective that goes far beyond his teenage years.
Being at Joliet Catholic. Being a Hilltopper.
“It meant everything,” said Isaac, the 6-foot-2, 225-pound senior bound for USC. “I grew up knowing I was going to come here and hoping to be a part of the tradition, and these past years, I’ve learned what it’s all about. I’m glad I went here. I got to play with some of the greatest guys that I have ever met.”
Those guys wearing iconic home brown jerseys went up and then down together – in a football tradition befitting 13 state championships – on a beautifully sunny and unseasonably pleasant fall afternoon.
In the lead for JCA (8-5) was a healthier-than-he-has-been-all-year Isaac, who rushed for 277 yards and 3 touchdowns on 30 carries. He helped the Hilltoppers push ahead 13-0, 21-7, 28-14 and 31-14, setting the school’s all-time career rushing record with 5,315 yards. J.R. Zwierzynski had 5,070 from 1998-2001.
Three other terrific seniors – wingback Tyler Reitz, quarterback Craig Slowik and wide receiver/tight end Chris Tschida – complemented Isaac. Reitz ran for 123 yards on 14 carries, Slowik completed 8-of-12 passes for 114 yards and 2 touchdowns and Tschida totaled 4 receptions for 51 yards and another TD.
Defensively, senior linebacker Matt Madrigal paced the Hillmen with 12 tackles and senior defensive back Keith Craig contributed an interception. Senior safety Zach Jackovich, senior defensive tackle Max Terlep and senior cornerback Grant Harrison notched 5 tackles apiece in their final high school games.
Those were among the players in the thoughts of Joliet Catholic coach Dan Sharp as he addressed the media afterward, the sting of being one step short of Champaign hurting more because of his seniors.
They gave. They gave everything.
“It’s an unbelievable group of kids and I just feel for them, especially the seniors,” Sharp said. “They faced a lot of adversity, and it came down to two great teams playing. It is tough when you look at Ty and Reitzy and Slowik and Madrigal … all of those guys … you can’t help but fall in love with them.
“When you’re with them as long as we’ve been, it’s like you’re living with them daily through the practices in the summer. You know they’re a special group of kids. And you think of losing Mammo …”
Matt Mammosser, a starting defensive tackle last year on Joliet Catholic’s 5A state runnerup team, died in the spring of a brain tumor and a moment of silence was held before the game. With tears in his eyes, Sharp choked up before pausing to add an extra layer to the aforementioned comments by Isaac.
“They’ll be better for this,” Sharp said. “If this (losing to Montini) is the worst thing that happens in their lives, they’ll be the luckiest guys in the world. I’m the luckiest guy that I had the chance to coach them.”
A brilliant beginning positioned the Hilltoppers perfectly, seemingly on target to snap the 18-game playoff winning streak of Montini (11-2). The three-time defending state champs did not have an answer in the first half for Isaac, who raced to 194 yards on 15 carries and scored on runs of 10 and 5 yards.
On top of that, Slowik hooked up a pair of passing TDs across the middle, connecting with Tschida for an 8-yarder and junior tight end Jordan Jones (2 catches, 29 yards) for an 11-yarder. Tschida’s score at 7:19 left in the second quarter built the 21-7 lead and Jones’ at 3:37 left created the 28-14 halftime edge.
They were hot. They were red-hot.
“Definitely, the first half, it was the best that we could have played,” Slowik said. “Ty was fantastic. I thought our offense played well and Chris and Jordan made a couple big catches. All you could ask for.”
“Our offensive line did a great job,” Isaac said, referring to juniors J.B. Butler and Justin Hunter at tackle, senior Brody Fay at guard, junior Jalen Hansel at guard and senior Lino Bibian at center. “It was a complete team effort by our offense, everyone. Unfortunately, we were just not able to finish it off.”
What might have prevented Montini’s frenetic finish started as early as the opening series of the second half. Sophomore kicker Brian Bravo booted a 33-yard field goal for the 31-14 advantage, but a 17-yard TD pass from Slowik to Jones went for naught when Jones was correctly ruled to be out of bounds.
After the Broncos sliced the deficit to 31-21 with 2:57 remaining in the third quarter, Isaac romped to an 8-yard gain on first down. Junior fullback Mike Ivlow, Reitz and Isaac, however, were stopped on the next 3 carries, with Isaac’s run occurring on fourth down. Combine that with a JCA fumble and Montini took a 34-31 lead.
“As a senior leader, that shouldn’t happen,” Isaac said. “I take full responsibility for the fumble.”
Still, Isaac found redemption with 4:41 to play in the fourth quarter, slipping off right end for a 22-yard TD and a 37-34 lead. Slowik first completed a 15-yarder to Tschida and followed with a 16-yarder to Reitz on the robust 8-play, 80-yard drive. Reitz also rolled to 28 yards on 3 carries to prime the pump.
“You know, when we scored with (four) minutes left, maybe we scored too soon,” Sharp said. “But you can’t hold back. We knew the thing we had to stay away from was the big play and, in the second half, we gave up a couple big plays. And I don’t know if it was fatigue, but we tackled better in the first half.”
That would stand out as Montini marched on a 14-play, 72-yard winning drive. Instead of kicking the tying field goal, the Broncos converted a pivotal 4th-and-2 at 55 seconds left and scored at 30.8 to play.
“They came out ready to play in the second half, they knew what they needed to do and they did it,” a dejected Madrigal said. “It was one play that turned into a big play and a big play. We knew that we needed to close them out and to not let their offense take over, and we just couldn’t get the stop.”
It placed Slowik and Co. into a nearly impossible situation. Slowik actually fired back-to-back 18-yarders to Jones and Isaac and scrambled for a yard, but the Hillmen season ended on fourth down at the 43.
“It was hard,” Slowik said. “You have so many guys in coverage. If we would have had more time, I think we would have punched it in, but you only have 30 seconds. You can only go short, 20 yards for so long. We were up by 17, all we needed was a stop and we get it to 24. And we got stopped on fourth down.”
After Montini stopped Joliet Catholic on fourth down, the Broncos’ confetti-filled postgame began. Sharp gathered his Hilltoppers for a final time before the huddle broke and he called out Isaac’s name.
Coach and player. Like father and son.
“I just told him I loved him and I never saw anyone run the ball better in a brown jersey than him,” Sharp said. “I know he’s going to be successful and I feel for him and all the guys. I feel for all of our guys.”
“I’m just hurting for our guys,” Isaac nodded. “I’ve seen how hard they’ve worked and how better they have gotten, and they deserve better than this. For us seniors, we have to move on and do whatever we will do. But our underclassmen will work hard in the offseason – they’re going to get it done next year.”
NOTES: Dan Sharp finishes his 16th year at Joliet Catholic with a record of 170-33, for a winning percentage of .825 – the best in modern school history (Barney Grogan, who coached one season, 1924, went 5-1-1 for a .833 winning percentage) … Sharp has an overall record of 194-54 in 20 seasons, a .782 winning percentage … Junior linebackers Kevin Jensen and Zach Rezin tallied 10 and 9 tackles, respectively, vs. Montini. Junior defensive lineman Anthony McInerney, a state qualifier last winter in wrestling, also marked 10 tackles … JCA’s 1,585 passing yards rank as the fifth-best single-season effort in school history, beating the 1,546 in 1987 and coming up two yards short to the 1,587 in 1965 … JCA’s 5,267 total yards of offense just missed the top 10 in school history, behind the 5,282 in 2005 … JCA’s 451 points also just missed the top 10 in school history, behind the 461 in 1990 … Ty Isaac’s 1,500 yards put him in the top 20 for single-season rushing at 16th, beating Joe Van Tassel’s 1,481 yards in 1999 but behind Rick Thayer’s 1,563 yards in 1976. Yes, Rick is the brother of former Chicago Bears offensive lineman Tom Thayer … Craig Slowik’s 1,536 yards put him at fourth for single-season passing, eclipsing Jonathan Voss’ 1,523 in 1987. Pat Pesavento holds the top two spots with 1,839 and 1,682 yards in 1983 and 1982, respectively … Chris Tschida’s 583 yards put him at sixth for single-season
receiving, right behind Alex Kolodziej (585 in 2009) and moving past Andy
Pellegrini (574 in 1987) … Slowik finished as JCA’s second-best passer in
school history with 2,836 yards, moving past John Ruettiger (2,710 from
2005-07). Pesavento holds the top spot with 3,521 from 1982-83 ... Brian Bravo’s
field goal against Montini was his sixth, tying with Ty Foley, Rob Cranmer and
Isaac Grashoff for the most career field goal conversions in school history.
The record is 9 by Joe Van Tassel … JCA closes the 2012 books at 104-23 in 36
playoff appearances, an .819 winning percentage. The Hillmen are 34-2 in
first-round games, 19-6 in second-round games, 21-7 in the quarterfinals and
17-4 in the semifinals. JCA is 13-4 in state title games.