During the regular season, Joliet Catholic Academy’s football offense often did not resemble its ordinary self.
The Hilltoppers played much of the way without USC recruit Ty Isaac, a senior running back who was hampered by shoulder and groin injuries. When he went down, Tyler Reitz stepped up.
JCA pushed forward. Reitz had a couple of big games. Then, he went down with an injury. And the burden of carrying the running game fell on junior Michael Ivlow.
Ivlow grew up in a hurry even as JCA experienced some ups-and-downs on the way to a 5-4 mark that was punctuated by a pair of overtime victories and an equal number of heart-breaking setbacks.
All three backs were running at full speed in the Hilltoppers’ 42-21 victory over Tinley Park in the second round of the Class 5A football playoffs. Isaac and Ivlow topped 100 yards rushing. Reitz chipped in 65 yards on 12 carries and scored two touchdowns.
At long last, a collective cheer went up in the JCA ranks: “Hurrah! The gang is all here.” The Hilltoppers’ vaunted double-wing attack finally was spreading its wings and making like its old self.
No one was happier than Joliet Catholic Academy coach Dan Sharp.
“It’s like having a Ferrari in the garage and you can’t drive it,” he said. “You’ve finally got the keys and you can drive it now that we’ve got Ty (Isaac) back in this offense.”
Isaac is JCA’s No. 1 threat, to be sure. He is 6-2 and 225 pounds and glides past opponent defenders. He is headed to the West Coast and the Pac-12 for a reason. He topped the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the season against the Titans, a feat all the more remarkable in light of the fact he has missed so many snaps.
With him watching, JCA (7-4) played the cards it was dealt. And, now, the argument can be made the Hilltoppers are better off because Isaac was out for so long. They head into a 5A quarterfinal game against Lincoln-Way West with more battle-tested skill players than if Isaac carried the ball over and over and over the last three months.
Kickoff is at 1 p.m. Saturday in New Lenox.
Lincoln-Way West (8-3) advanced with a 31-15 victory over previously undefeated Kaneland. Lavonte Blackful torched the Knights on kickoff and punt return plays and a couple of long runs.
When the two met last season, JCA steamrolled Lincoln-Way West 48-14 in the opening round of the 5A playoffs. That was then. This is now. This is a new season for the Hilltoppers, a new adventure born out of the promise that comes from drawing reinforcements from the sidelines.
“Yeah,” Sharp said of the waiting game he played for his backs to return. “I was more frustrated for those guys, knowing how much they wanted to get out there. What happened during that time is guys like Ivlow, our quarterback and some of our receivers really had to pick up the slack.
“That development has made us stronger as an offense. With Ivlow in particular, you could see his development. If it wasn’t for him having to carry a lot of the load—the last two games of the year being a big part of the offense—he may not be playing like he is right now.
“It’s kind of like—yeah, we wanted them all year, but you know what? We’re a better team because more guys got opportunities.”
Isaac has rushed for 1,043 yards on 122 carries. He is closing in on J.R. Zwierzynski’s all-time JCA career rushing mark. Isaac is at 4,858 yards. Zwierzynski rushed for 5,070 from 1998-2001.
Many will focus on Isaac’s run to the record book, and no doubt it will be fun to watch. Lost in that assault will be JCA’s offensive balance. Ask this question on any given play: Who has the ball?
Ivlow has 123 carries and Reitz 120. Just as important, senior quarterback Craig Slowik has passed for 1,403 yards, the seventh-best total in JCA history. Chris Tschida has 522 receiving yards. With so many options, the potential is there for the Hilltoppers to explode.
Ivlow has noticed. He was talking about going downstate and bringing home another title after JCA took care of business against Tinley Park. Not long ago that kind of talk would have sounded foolish. Now?
Who’s going to stop JCA’s three-headed monster of a backfield? The job is one more complicated than stacking the line of scrimmage to bottle up the Hilltoppers’ run game. Reitz can catch the ball. Isaac might be more dangerous when he leaks out of the backfield and turns into a receiver. Can you say open space?
“If you’re going to put everybody up on the line of scrimmage to stop his run, he can break out of there and catch passes and make plays in the passing game, like he did in the game against Marist,” Sharp said.
Go ahead, open that garage door. Listen for that unmistakable car-key jingle.
JCA’s coach is ready to turn the ignition switch. He’s driving a vintage Ferrari. Hang on for the ride.