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The road through the East Suburban Catholic Conference just got more familiar looking for Carmel.
It now starts and stops in the Corsairs' hometown, Mundelein.
"I always tell our guys that the road to the conference championship goes through Joliet," Carmel coach Andy Bitto said. "Now we have the inside track."
The Corsairs earned the favorable detour with their emotionally draining 31-28 victory over visiting Joliet Catholic on Friday in front of a standing-room-only crowd.
The difference was a monster 44-yard, third-quarter field goal by Carmel kicker Steven O'Block.
Carmel, which has been dueling Joliet Catholic for East Suburban Catholic Conference supremacy for the last 10 years, stays perfect on the season at 4-0 and 2-0 in league play. The Corsairs have won three ESCC titles during that time while Joliet Catholic, which drops to 3-1 and 0-1, has won six.
"We're definitely more confident now (about the race for the conference championship)," Carmel senior cornerback Michael Fitzgibbons said. "We feel that Joliet is always our toughest game of the year. We're usually the top two teams in the conference, so to knock them off is huge.
"Beating such a tough team like this kind of makes us feel that if we can beat them, we can beat anyone."
For awhile, it seemed like there might never be a winner in this game.
In a crazy first quarter that was a blur of nonstop scoring, Carmel and Joliet Catholic matched each other point for point. Between them, the Corsairs and the Hilltoppers scored 42 first-quarter points.
Jordan Kos got Carmel going when he capped a 6-play drive on the opening possession of the game with a 25-yard touchdown run at the 9:09 mark.
Just 12 seconds later, on Joliet Catholic's first offensive play, Josh Ferguson sprinted 80 yards for a touchdown.
The teams then tied again at 14 when they each scored on their next respective possessions - Carmel on a beautiful, perfectly-in-stride 54-yard touchdown pass from Brian Serio to Ryan Cappis that ended a seven-play drive; and Joliet Catholic on a 77-yard touchdown run by Malin Jones. That one came on the Hilltoppers' second offensive play of the game.
Carmel snuck in another touchdown with 5.4 seconds left in the first quarter when Serio hooked up with Pat Doherty for a 19-yard touchdown pass. That gave the Corsairs a 21-14 lead.
But in keeping with the nature of the game, Joliet Catholic answered again. Ferguson caught the ensuing kickoff, and as time expired, he dodged one tackler after another as he ran 95 yards for a touchdown.
The exhausting first quarter had finally come to an end, tied 21-21.
"Scoring back-to-back like that, we knew it was going to be a shootout from the beginning," said Kos, who finished with a game-high 140 rushing yards on 25 carries. "We came out wanting to set the tone from the beginning. I felt like we were overpowering them the whole game. And we scored first, so we knew they had to keep matching us."
Joliet Catholic couldn't keep up the pace in the second half.
After the Hilltoppers were forced to punt on the first possession of the third quarter, the Carmel offense picked up where it had left off. The Corsairs scored a touchdown on their first second-half possession, nine plays into the drive.
Quarterback Brian Serio scored on a 10-yard touchdown run to put the Corsairs up 28-21 with 4:45 left in the quarter.
Joliet Catholic then fumbled on its next possession and Carmel linebacker Kevin Cox came up with the recovery.
Three plays later, O'Block kicked his field goal.
"Offensively, we had some distractions on our line and we started to fall behind," said Ferguson, an Illinois recruit who finished with 119 yards and 3 touchdowns. "But it was a great game both ways. It was a great experience. Props to the Corsairs, they played a great game."
Major props go to the Carmel defense, which turned the Hilltopper offense from red hot to ice cold. Joliet Catholic managed just 83 yards of offense in the entire second half after 220 yards in the first half.
And the Hilltoppers' only second-half score came when Ferguson ran in a touchdown from 1-yard out with 2:06 left in the game. That cut the deficit to 31-28, but by then, it was too late for Joliet Catholic to score again.
All Carmel had to do was gently run out the clock on its next possession.
"They came out in the first quarter in something we hadn't seen before while we were practicing all week and we were a little confused," Fitzgibbons said. "But we caught on and we made our adjustments and we started stopping them. The second half was pretty much a shutdown."