The first playoff game in Grayslake North history couldn't have started any better for the home team.
The Knights took the opening kickoff and drove 80 yards in 9 plays. Senior quarterback A.J. Fish completed 6 of 6 passes for 67 yards and North took a 7-0 lead over Notre Dame just 2˝ minutes into the Class 6A playoff contest.
But then, the bad luck of the draw kicked in for Grayslake North. The visiting Dons were 5-4, but play in the competitive East Suburban Catholic Conference and have a victory over Joliet Catholic to their credit.
Notre Dame definitely held an edge in strength of schedule and it paid dividends quickly. The Dons rolled up a 33-7 advantage at halftime and held on to beat Grayslake North 46-27.
"We knew they were a good team. It's just a bad draw," North coach Steve Wood said. "Without a doubt, that's the best team we've played. It just took a while for us to adjust."
Notre Dame junior running back Chris James was as good as advertised, and then some. He rushed for an astonishing 242 yards in the first half on 27 carries.
James said he takes two trains and a bus to get from his home in the Rogers Park area of Chicago to Niles for school. He nearly covered that much ground in this game alone.
Grayslake North slowed him down after halftime by basically stacking the entire defense to stop the run, but James still finished with 319 yards on 48 carries. He scored all 7 Notre Dame touchdowns and after the game, barely seemed winded.
"You know, once you're out there, your adrenaline's pumping," James said. "I was hungry for the ball. I was like looking at the sideline, just like, 'Gimme the ball, gimme the ball, gimme the ball.'"
On the first play of Notre Dame's third offensive possession, James burst through the middle for a 44-yard touchdown run and the momentum changed quickly. Before the first half was over, James added scoring runs of 6, 17, 6 and 1 yard. He had a 43-yard run, a 23-yard gain and a 65-yard touchdown called back by a holding penalty.
"I was training for this. I knew this year the team was going to lean on me," James said. "So I had to get my body ready. It paid off. That's a lot of carries when you think about it, but it didn't feel like that many."
Notre Dame's offensive line of Sean Nicholson, Mike Maligranda, Bobby Deleonardis, Nick Bargione and Mike Mulcrone opened some huge holes.
"(James) works very hard and he's very complimentary toward his line," Dons coach Mike Hennessey said. "They have a lot of fun blocking and he has a lot of fun running. There's just a really good chemistry there."
Grayslake North (8-2) didn't roll over after giving up 33 straight points. The Knights got an interception by lineman Vince Meixelsperger, then broke the scoring drought with a 46-yard run by Titus Booker. After recovering an onside kick, North scored again on Fish's 16-yard pass to Charlie Pine and the deficit was down to 33-21.
"I challenged the kids at halftime on how they wanted to be remembered," Wood said. "I'm really proud of the way they came out in the second half and made it interesting."
North's best chance to get back in it came midway through the fourth quarter. Trailing 40-27, the Knights had a second-and-1 near midfield, but couldn't gain anything on the next three plays.
Fish finished his career by completing 23-of-41 passes for 200 yards. He ran for 73 yards on North's final drive, but unfortunately, fumbled on the goal line.
"He's a great football player," Wood said of Fish. "If any schools step up and offer him anything, they're getting one heck of an athlete, there's no doubt. He definitely makes us go. We're going to miss him, without a doubt."