Thursday, November 6, 2014

Johnsburg, Illinois will be...

...the setting for my Friday night Game of the Week.

Now, before you say "Johns-who? Where?," you may want to listen to the video above in which Tom Waits sings "Johnsburg, Illinois," "a short, poignant love poem to his wife, Kathleen Brennan, who grew up in the village." It has some nice pictures of the village (where's that stone chapel?), but I think you'll agree with critic Daniel Durchholz, who said Waits has a distinctive voice which sounds "like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car."

Why am I driving an hour and a half (without traffic) on a Friday afternoon to a small town (pop. 6337) in McHenry County to see a 4A game hosted by a school whose Wikipedia page talks more about its music programs than athletics? Good question.

First of all, I really, really like the visiting team, Phillips. I first saw the Wildcats in a wild game against De La Salle in Soldier Field in 2013. The Bronzeville squad came up short, 51-48, but it was a dazzling display of offense led by its then-junior quarterback, Dewayne Collins. Who are these guys? I thought. The Wildcats went on to an 8-4 finish and a third-round loss to the eventual 4A runners-up, Geneseo.

This year, I watched the No. 5-seed Phillips (8-1) in their only loss of the season, to 7A Carmel, 20-13, in Week Two, followed by their impressive win the next week over 8A Naperville North, 40-7, at Lane Tech. I can't wait to see these guys in the playoffs!, I thought.

Besides Carmel (6-3), Phillips played only two other winning teams this year, King (8-1) and Raby (5-4), as well as last year's 3A champ, Stillman Valley (2-7), on the road. They may not have played the most challenging schedule in Illinois, but the Wildcats did record six shutouts and won their first-round playoff game against a very respectable Plano (6-3). Phillips is currently ranked No. 47 by MaxPreps, behind Fremd (6-4) and ahead of Lincoln-Way West (9-1).

Here's Coach Troy McAllister's team's 2014 schedule (home team in CAPS):

Phillips 51, STILLMAN VALLEY 0
Carmel 20, PHILLIPS 13
Phillips 40, Naperville North 7
PHILLIPS 69, Julian 0
Phillips 21, BROOKS 6
Phillips 35, KING 0
Phillips 48, RABY 0
Phillips 58, Urban Prep/Bronzeville 0
PHILLIPS 49, Lane 0
PHILLIPS 24, Plano 6

The Johnsburg Skyhawks, who compete in the East Division of the Big Northern Conference, are ranked No. 112 by MaxPreps, between O'Fallon (4-5) and Crystal Lake Central (7-3). Coach Mike Maloney, who played offensive lineman at Joliet Catholic and Illinois, "has turned around Johnsburg in short order," according to Mike Helfgot of the Trib. "Just 1-17 in Maloney's first two seasons as coach," the Skyhawks enter tomorrow night's contest at 9-1.

The Johnsburg eleven played six winning teams in 2014: Oregon (5-4), Mendota (5-4), North Boone (5-4), Richmond-Burton (6-3), Marengo (5-4), Burlington Central (6-3) before last week's victory over Aurora Central Catholic (6-3). That's a pretty impressive schedule.

Here it is in detail:

OREGON 13, Johnsburg 7
Johnsburg 49 MENDOTA 27
JOHNSBURG 47, Rockford Christian 6
Johnsburg 35, NORTH BOONE 21
JOHNSBURG 35, Richmond-Burton 13
Johnsburg 21, GENOA-KINGSTON 13
JOHNSBURG 42, Marengo 17
JOHNSBURG 62, Harvard 14
JOHNSBURG 42, Aurora Central Catholic 39

So, again, why this game? Well, to get another look at Phillips's high-octane offense, of course. But I'm also intrigued by the contrast in the two schools.

Wendell Phillips Academy High School, named after a noted abolitionist, opened its doors in 1904 and by 1920 had become Chicago's first predominantly African-American high school. From Wikipedia:

During this period, the school's winning basketball team was drafted by Abe Saperstein, a Chicago Parks and Recreation employee, to form the nucleus of a group that later became the Harlem Globetrotters. They were initially called "the Savoy Big Five," taking their new name from Bronzeville's Savoy Ballroom.

Now located at 244 E. Pershing Road in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago, the school has produced a number of notable African-American alumni, including Nat "King" Cole, singing legend and charter member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; the late Sam Cooke, also a singer; and George E. Johnson, Sr., founder of Johnson Products (he was a cosmetics manufacturer and his was the first African-American owned firm to be listed on the American Stock Exchange).

Johnsburg, Illinois, meanwhile, is a small town about ten miles from the Wisconsin border that is 98.83 percent all white.

It reminds me a little of the time I saw Nazareth travel up to Prairie Ridge in Crystal Lake for the 5A quarterfinal game back in 2011. With country music (country music!) blaring on the PA system before the kickoff, Roadrunner fans were searching the concession stand in vain for Italian sah-sidge. This should be even better!

As for the game itself, I'm going to say that Phillips's speed and athleticism will just be too much for the country boys at Johnsburg. I expect a good game, though, and will be live-tweeting it @BoringOldWhtGuy. See you there!

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