Joe Connelly remembers the empty feeling that weighed on the defensive back/wide receiver and his teammates after St. Francis narrowly missed out on a postseason football playoff berth last season.
After defeating Guerin 56-7 Friday night in Wheaton, Connelly and company say they're prepared to do whatever it takes to avoid the same fate next weekend.
At 4-4 St. Francis needs a victory over St. Edward next week to earn a ticket to the IHSA Class 5A playoffs. It would be the Spartans' first playoff appearance since losing to eventual Class 5A champion Montini in the first round of the 2009 postseason. St. Francis won the Class 5A title in 2008.
"We don't want to miss out on the playoffs again," Connelly said. "St. Edward is a really good team. We'll have to play very well to win. This could be our last game as seniors. We're not ready for our football careers to end here. We'll be ready to go."
The Spartans (4-4, 1-4 Suburban Christian Blue) certainly made believers out of Guerin coach Tony Pecoraro Friday night. The Spartans ended a four-game losing streak in emphatic fashion, bolting to a 42-0 lead that triggered the 40-point-margin running clock a mere three minutes into the second quarter.
St. Francis rumbled for 271 yards on the ground in the first half, 152 coming on just five carries by James Butler. The senior running back was barely touched on touchdown runs of 25 and 42 yards, hurdling two defenders on one TD burst, and even had 60- and 65-yard touchdowns nullified by holding penalties.
"They're a very talented team. They're good at every phase of the game," Pecoraro said. "I think they will make a deep run in the playoffs if they get in. They've had some close losses against some great teams in our conference (Marmion 26-20, Marian Central 34-28), and Butler is a very impressive player. He will make some college football program very happy this time next year."
The Spartans scored in a variety of ways against Guerin (2-6, 0-5 Suburban Christian Gold). After Butler's first touchdown, Jackson broke loose for a 33-yard touchdown run and Chris Smith found the end zone from 1 yard out following a Jack Infelise interception to stake St. Francis to a 19-0 first-quarter advantage.
Quarterback Zach Prociuk fired a 23-yard TD strike to Adam Hart 37 seconds into the second quarter, and Jackson pushed the lead to 33-0 a minute later when he returned an interception 20 yards for his first defensive touchdown.
The Spartans harassed Guerin quarterback Tyler Flynn into an intentional grounding penalty while throwing from his end zone, giving St. Francis a safety and a 35-0 lead. Butler then patiently wound his way around and over Guerin defenders for his second score on the next play from scrimmage, prompting the running clock rule.
Running back Colin Doyle closed out the first-half onslaught with an 11-yard score and a 49-0 lead over the game but overmatched Gators. Guerin's roster is down to 22 healthy players after six starters suffered injuries earlier in the season. Several of those players are freshmen and sophomores who play in both the sophomore and varsity games each week.
"To their credit our kids don't ever give up," Pecoraro said. "They fight hard from start to finish. It's a tough situation. Coach Purnell is a class act. I appreciate his sportsmanship, how he didn't try to run up the score in the second half."