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By Dave Oberhelman
Class 5A semifinals
No. 2 Sycamore (12-0) at No. 1 Montini (12-0)
Game time: 1 p.m. Saturday.
Road to the semifinals: Sycamore beat No. 15 seed Antioch 48-24, No. 10 Nazareth 33-28 and No. 6 seed Lincoln-Way West 21-14. Montini beat No. 16 seed Morgan Park 43-6, No. 9 Marian Central 40-7 and No. 4 seed Joliet Catholic 22-21.
Playoff history: Sycamore coach Joe Ryan has led the Spartans to five straight playoff appearances. This is Sycamore's furthest advancement since a 1978 Class 3A semifinal. The Spartans, 10-10 overall in 10 playoff appearances, are 0-4 against Montini with a 2009 5A quarterfinal loss and last season's second-round 24-22 loss. Montini continues its quest to become Illinois' second team, after Driscoll, to win five consecutive state championships. Coach Chris Andriano's Broncos, 49-20 in 26 playoff appearances including the last 21 straight, also won the 2004 Class 4A championship.
Outlook: Referring to last year's contest, won on a 34-yard Montini field goal with 1.1 seconds left, Andriano said, "They know they can beat us." Ask Joliet Catholic, which led 21-14 with five minutes left before Stephen Dennis' miracle 29-yard touchdown catch and Nile Sykes' conversion run -- doing it is a different story. Sycamore has skilled, experienced athletes. Quarterback Devin Mottet can run out of the Spartans' wingback formation and also throw, for 279 yards last week. Last year against Montini 6-foot-4 Iowa-bound receiver Ben Niemann caught 11 passes for 124 yards as Mottet went 22 of 28 for 253. Sycamore's ground game, which includes Class 2A 200-meter winner Dion Hooker, will need a great push by offensive linemen Derek Stenberg, Daniel Coovert and Division I prospect Evan Short because Montini only allows 2.7 yards a carry. Fast Broncos middle linebacker Mike Maduko has a team-high 109 tackles; linemen Anthony Ferraro and Dylan Thompson and linebacker Nile Sykes each have at least 20 tackles for loss. Andriano said last year Sycamore played a four-man defensive front but switched to three linemen against Montini. That might give linebackers Brett Weaver and Jack Dargis more help containing the Alex Wills-to-Tyler Tumpane bubble screens that fly sideline to sideline. Broncos receiver Leon Thornton III, who has caught 53 passes for 958 yards, 13 touchdowns, is questionable after twisting a knee against Joliet Catholic. "We're going to find out how good we are," Ryan said.
Intangibles: Dennis averaged 43.8 yards on 6 punts last week, twice pinning Joliet Catholic inside its 10-yard line. Sycamore brings its own field-position weapon, punter Logan Schneider. Last year Sycamore outgained Montini 193 yards to 55 in the first half but missed a field goal and lost 3 fumbles. Montini's confidence and belief are sky-high, but highly motivated Sycamore cleared a mental hurdle in Week 8, dealing Kaneland its first loss in 35 consecutive regular-season games to win the Northern Illinois Big 12 East in the process. As Andriano said, close games can be determined by "mind over matter."
Advancement: The winner advances to the Class 5A championship game between the winner of Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin (12-0) and Washington (12-0).