Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Sometimes the universe...

...just smiles on you.

That's how I felt yesterday when the dates and times for this weekend's playoff games were announced on the IHSA website. Earlier in the day I had written, "What if the Lincoln-Way East - Mount Carmel tilt and the Rockford Lutheran - Phillips game get played back-to-back at Gately Stadium? Wouldn't that be great?" Well, that's exactly how it's going to go down this Saturday. (And all games this weekend will be played on Saturday.*) Kickoff for the first contest will be at one o'clock and the second at six. I assume they'll empty out the stadium between "matches" (as Mitt Romney would call them) so that will give me an excuse to drive over to Top Notch Beefburgers on 95th Street in Beverly for an inter-game snack.

But more on all that later.

First this last weekend, in which I was able to go to three games, each one better than the last.

On Friday I drove up to Johnsburg, a village in McHenry County, ten miles from the Wisconsin border. I sat next to two brothers, in their seventies I'd say, and one of their sons-in-law. If these three are at all representative of the residents of the town, Johnsburg must have the nicest people around.

The game featured a pair of 4A schools, the No. 4-seed Johnsburg Skyhawks and the visiting No. 5-seed Phillips Wildcats, each entering at 10-1. I had seen Phillips twice before (against Carmel and Naperville North) and knew they had an explosive offense, led by Illinois State-bound quarterback Dewayne Collins, running back Corey Warren and junior wide receiver Quayvon Skanes, and a stingy defense led by linebacker Marquise Kelley. But I didn't know what to expect from the home team.

The game began slowly enough, with the Wildcats leading by only 6-0 at the end of the first quarter and 14-0 at the half. But things really got rolling after intermission and the "contest" turned into a rout. Phillips ended up winning, 41-0, and will now face No. 1-seed Rockford Lutheran (11-0) on Saturday night. Everybody in the stands was talking about the Crusaders, and a quick look at their schedule reveals a team that has averaged over 53 points a game while allowing fewer than eight. Wow!

But the Wildcats have outscored their opponents by an average of 41-4, including seven shutouts! So this could be a good matchup.

On Saturday I went to the rematch of Loyola and Stevenson up in Lincolnshire. (Has the Loyola - Stevenson rivalry become the new Loyola - Maine South?) The weather was much milder this year (thank God!), and the Patriots got off to an early 17-0 lead which the Ramblers just couldn't overcome. The Patriots' offense dominated in the early going, and Mike Helfgot of the Trib put it well in a tweet, "Stevenson ran 25 plays in the first quarter to Loyola's 3." But the Ramblers ended up making a game of it, losing by only 24-21. (And I suspect that if the two teams played ten times they would split 5-5; they're that close.)

I have only two observations to make about the game. The first is that Loyola quarterback, Aidan Walsh, who is actually third string on the depth chart, would be a starting signal-caller at almost any other school. I can't believe how well this guy played! But it also begs the question: why, unlike so many other kids who anticipate riding the bench senior year, didn't Walsh transfer to another school that could have used a good quarterback, like, say, Notre Dame, or his hometown (I think) Evanston? And that says something about Walsh, or Loyola, or both. It tells me that Walsh likes Loyola so much that he would rather serve as a backup in his senior year than transfer. And in the end, it worked out well both for him and the school: Walsh got to lead his team in the playoffs and the Ramblers got a good quarterback in the bargain.

My second observation is that, with ten minutes left in the fourth quarter and leading by two scores, Stevenson elected to pass rather than run the ball and run down the clock. Loyola ended up intercepting a Willie Bourbon pass and scored a few plays later to make it 24-21 with eight and a half minutes remaining. Everybody on the Stevenson side was incredulous, but the home team prevailed in the end. If Loyola had pulled it out somehow, Bourbon would have had to live with that pick for the rest of his life (even though he played an otherwise great game). Should Stevenson coach Bill McNamara have played it more conservatively? More on that in a minute.

After the game I stopped off at a nearby McDonald's on Half Day and Milwaukee to regroup. I checked the day's other scores on Twitter, and wolfed down a Big Mac, Filet-O-Fish, medium fries and a cup of Joe. I knew I had to keep my strength up if I was going to make it down to Bolingbrook for the nightcap with Oswego.

Bolingbrook's Tuf Borland, the Name of the Day.
I'm glad I did; it turned out to be the best game of the weekend. The visiting Panthers, down 28-14 late in the fourth quarter, came back to tie it up with six seconds left on the clock. Junior quarterback Steven Frank (who is the Real Deal, by the way) engineered two long drives, the second with no timeouts, to send the contest into overtime. The Brook ended up winning, 31-28, but not before a heck of a scare from the No. 1-seed Oswego.

My two observations from this game are, first, that Steven Frank is every bit as good as you've heard. (The guy behind me said he reminded him of Jake Kolbe from last year's Naperville Central championship team.) Frank, who already has an offer on the table from Illinois, could very well be the best quarterback in the state next year. You will definitely be hearing a lot about him in the future.

Second, leading by one score late in the fourth quarter, Bolingbrook coach John Ivlow, unlike Stevenson's McNamara, chose to play it safe by keeping the ball on the ground and running out the clock. It worked well for a while, as the Raiders made two first downs (I think) before turning the ball over on downs to Oswego deep in their own territory with only a minute and a half remaining and, as I mentioned above, no timeouts. Everyone around me was squawking, but I could only think of the game I had just attended and thought it was a good strategy. But Frank conducted a near-perfect (less than) two-minute drill to tie the game at 28 and send it into overtime. One last observation: don't take this kid Frank lightly -- ever. Wow!

So all in all, it was a great weekend of football. Phillips, Stevenson and Bolingbrook all won; while Johnsburg, Loyola and Oswego will watch the rest of the playoffs on TV or online or in person. Check back tomorrow for my first post on the quarterfinals.

* The game must be played on Saturday, unless both schools agree to play the game on Friday. Friday games must not be scheduled during school hours. Saturday games must start between 1 pm and 7 pm. The schools must agree on the starting time of the game; if they cannot come to an agreement, the IHSA Office will set the starting time. (Hat tip: Ed Crotty.)