Quarterback Ethan Olles is part of a big group of returnees from Mid-Suburban West champion and Class 8A second-round playoff qualifier Palatine.
Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer
Ethan Olles was not thinking just about how much it hurt Palatine on the field to not have Jesse Bobbit and Kurt Becker and ultimately Cam Kuksa for Saturday's 35-21 Class 8A second-round playoff loss at Glenbard North.
The junior quarterback also thought about how difficult it was for Becker to be sidelined for his last two high school games with a broken ankle and Bobbit, the Mid-Suburban West defensive player of the year, to be out with a concussion.
"They're great leaders," Olles said of the two standouts on the MSL's top defense. "I can't imagine how it is for them to not be able to play. I feel so bad for them."
Olles and Kuksa were feeling good from the start Saturday as they connected 4 times on the game-opening scoring drive for 69 yards. Kuksa ran for a touchdown and caught 8 passes for 121 yards but did not play in the second half because of a concussion.
"He was having a heck of a first half offensively and I thought without him the kids did a nice job of fighting," said Palatine coach Tyler Donnelly.
"Cam was another weapon offensively and defensively that we lost," Olles said. "(Alex) Nawrot's shoulder was killing him.
"The seniors played their hearts out but they (Glenbard North) executed better than us. There are some things I could have improved on but I thought we did pretty well as a team."
Palatine's 9-2 finish was its best in 14 years and the MSL West title was its first outright crown since 1997. Bobbit will return for his fourth year as a varsity starter on defense along with linebackers Kevin Riggs and Lucas Rago and Kuksa and Dan Riddle in the secondary.
The offensive returnees will include Olles (2,102 total yards, 18 touchdowns), Kuksa (1,031 total yards, 11 TDs), running back John Serio (921 yards, 13 TDs), Nawrot, Bobbit, Rago and linemen Josh Baldus and Tyler Sydlowski.
Familiar faces: A year ago, Elk Grove head coach Brian Doll was part of a memorable Mid-Suburban East battle where Prospect won 42-41 in overtime.
It was all part of Pearlman's final season as head coach of the Knights. Now when the Grenadiers head up to Lake Zurich for Saturday's 1 p.m. Class 7A quarterfinal, Pearlman and Steve Polley will be on the home sideline as offensive coordinator and offensive line coach.
"Brent and Polley obviously have a good knowledge of what we do," Doll said. "We'll have some new and inventive things to keep them off balance this week.
"I have so much respect for Brent and Steve and (head coach Bryan) Stortz and what they've done up there."
Doll said "the million dollar question" is whether Lake Zurich senior quarterback Zach Till might play. Till was on crutches for last week's 10-3 win over Glenbard West with a broken left foot and sprained ankle suffered in the playoff opener against Geneva.
Till ran for 4 TDs against Geneva and 5 TDs in a Week 9 win over Zion-Benton. Senior Steven Kuhn took his place and the Bears also used wide receiver John Orlando in the Wildcat formation.
"We'll prepare for (all three) until we get there and see (Till) on crutches and not dressed," Doll said. "They've been able to win some key games without him."
But Doll said Till also looks pretty familiar right down to the No. 4 he wears.
"At the same time he's special and he reminds me so much of (Steve) Dazzo it's kind of scary," Doll said of Prospect's all-area quarterback last year. "'Bucc' (Assistant coach Brian Bucciarelli) said to me, 'I'm thinking exactly what you're thinking, he's another Brent Pearlman, Steve Dazzo type quarterback."
A full 48: There is one thing missing from Elk Grove's defensive resume as one of the top units in the MSL.
"We want a shutout because we don't have one this season," said Elk Grove sophomore defensive lineman Johnny Assimakopoulos.
Elk Grove's 39-22 second-round win over Machesney Park Harlem was its third straight game where it didn't allow a first-half point. Before that it had played five straight games and six overall without allowing a second-half point.
"We think we've been pretty dialed in on defense with what our kids are doing," said Elk Grove coach Brian Doll. "We're pretty happy with what the defense has done other than the second half Saturday. If we can put together two halves we could be pretty special."
The 5-foot-10, 205-pound Assimakopoulos said people "underestimate us because were little" of fellow linemates in MSL East Defensive Player of the Year Greg Johnsen (5-10, 205), Dan Egan (6-2, 230) and Tom Jansen (5-8, 165). That won't be the case Saturday.
"It will be nice to look out on the field and not see guys towering over our kids," Doll said. "Hopefully we can block them, though."
Five and still alive: Since the state expanded to eight classes and 256 teams in 2001, this season was the toughest for 5-4 teams to qualify with a record-high cutoff of 40 playoff points.
That didn't necessarily translate into more success for 5-4 teams as Lyons (Class 8A) and Virden North Mac (3A) are the only ones still alive in the quarterfinals. That's the lowest total since 2006 when Providence was the only 5-4 qualifier to reach the quarters.
Palatine was one of three 5-4 qualifier quarterfinalists last year, Schaumburg was one of a record six in 2008 and there were four in 2009, 2007 and 2004. Rolling Meadows reached the 7A semifinals in 2004.
There were two 5-4 qualifier quarterfinalists in 2003 and one in 2001, 2002 and 2005.
Quarter horse: Lake Zurich has made all five of its quarterfinal appearances since 2002 and has never lost. Last year the Bears beat Simeon 17-14.
Elk Grove made the last of its five quarterfinal trips in 2004 and lost 28-21 to Rolling Meadows. Back when it took only one win to reach the quarters, the Grenadiers won in 1981 and lost in 1979, 1977 and 1976.