With the game and its season on the line, Joliet Catholic Academy’s football team turned to its defense to make the big plays in a 21-20 overtime victory over Lincoln-Way West in the Class 5A quarterfinals.
Senior linebacker Ira Hughes notched his first sack. Junior defensive end Anthony McInerney stopped Lincoln-Way West’s Justin Keuch on a fourth-and-2 play in the first half. Keuch was harassed into a throwing an incompletion on a fourth-and-5 in the second half by JCA’s entire ‘D’ line.
Senior linebacker Matt Madrigal made a team-high 10 tackles. Senior defensive back Grant Harrison twice stopped Lincoln-Way West from gaining momentum through the airwaves with his two interceptions. His is a story of rehab.
Harrison broke his hand in a preseason scrimmage, missed four games and is making up for lost time here and now in the postseason.
And, of course, Zach Rezin teamed with J.B. Butler to deny Keuch on an option-read play after the Warriors scored and elected to go for the win on a two-point conversion play in overtime. Butler hit Keuch low and slowed him down. Rezin hit Keuch high and finished him off.
“Our defense played, I think, probably its best game of the season, maybe one of the best games since I’ve been here,” Joliet Catholic Academy coach Dan Sharp said. “That was a tremendous game. They made some stops down there in the red zone. They made some big third-down plays.
“We always talk about third down. We had a couple of interceptions—turnovers—and then, obviously, that stand on the two-point conversion. That was a very deceptive and great call on their part. Our guys read it and made the play.”
Joliet Catholic Academy (8-4) needed its defense to step up because USC recruit Ty Isaac went down after he aggravated a groin injury. The Hilltoppers struggled to move the ball in the second half until junior Ben Hart was inserted at fullback to block for junior Michael Ivlow.
Ivlow finished with 77 yards on 16 carries and scored the go-ahead touchdown for JCA in overtime. Brian Bravo kicked the extra point. With Isaac’s status uncertain heading into a Class 5A semifinal showdown against Lombard Montini, Hart and Ivlow likely will be thrust in the spotlight once again.
And so will JCA’s defense. Isaac isn’t going to recover in a week’s time. His injury is one that requires extended rest. That's not an option here. By now you know, there is no tomorrow. The harsh reality of the moment is this: It’s win and move on or lose and go home.
“Offensively, we did not perform as well as we should have, losing Ty (Isaac) in the second half and just struggling to get first downs,” Sharp said. “And our defense kept us in the game. This was a throwback, man.
“This could have been a 1970s game out here that Joliet Catholic played. And that makes us very proud as Hillmen alumni to see our defense play like that.”
Stopping Montini (10-2) will be a task akin to taming wild Broncos. Yes, they are called the Broncos, and the school’s nickname fits here. Kickoff is at 1 p.m. Saturday at Joliet Memorial Stadium.
Montini’s Mark Gorogianis ran wild in a 42-27 victory over Woodstock Marian Central. He piled up 240 yards and scored five touchdowns.
Gorogianis is the quarterback of a Montini spread attack that torched JCA for 70 points in the Broncos’ 70-45 victory over the Hilltoppers in the Class 5A state title game last November.
Isaac rushed for 515 yards and scored six touchdowns in that game. His highlight-reel performance was not enough to carry the day for JCA.
He heads into the rematch with a career-rushing total of 5,032. He needs 38 yards to tie J.R. Zwierzynski for first place on JCA’s all-time rushing list. Zwierzynski rushed for 5,070 yards from 1998-2001.
Yards won’t matter much here, though, not when the question is whether Isaac will play. If he does, will he be able to go the distance, literally and figuratively speaking? If he doesn’t, will JCA become more methodical on offense?
Could that be a blessing? The Hilltoppers might be more of a ball-hog unit without Isaac’s explosive runs. And you know what they say, right? The best defense is a ball-control offense, no?
Keep in mind, what the pundits say will matter not. What is important is who makes the big plays. Montini holds a 2-1 series edge vs. JCA over the last three years. The Hilltoppers will need their defense to rise up again—guys like Butler to make more postseason magic.
“I’ve never been a part of a bigger play in my life,” he said after he teamed with Rezin to make the play that resonated for JCA vs. Lincoln-Way West. “You’re fighting for your high school playoff life. And they went for two. They wanted to win. We just wanted it more. It’s exciting when you’re out there.
“But also, when you make a big play like that, it’s indescribable. You’re so happy and ready to go. I loved every bit of it.”