Top-seeded Stevenson gears up for playoffs
There have been undefeated football seasons at Stevenson in the past.
There have also been too many conference titles to count and a 26-year consecutive playoff streak that is among the best in the state.
But one item is missing from Stevenson's resume, and it's a pretty big one at that: a state championship.
With one of their best teams in program history, the Patriots are hoping to finally add that elusive piece of hardware to their trophy case, and on Saturday night they learned the path they'll have to take to do so.
The IHSA announced the 256 teams across eight classes that make up its state playoff field. At 9-0, Stevenson was the top-ranked team in Class 8A and will face No. 16 Lyons (5-4) in Lincolnshire.
Also in Class 8A, No. 9 Warren (7-2) will hit the road to take on No. 8 Loyola (7-2).
Loyola defeated Stevenson in the final seconds of the Class 8A semifinal last year to deny Stevenson its second trip to the state championship game. The Patriots advanced downstate in 2002 but lost to Lockport.
"We think about (the elusive state title at Stevenson) every day," Stevenson coach Bill McNamara said. "From losing in a heartbreaker to Loyola last year and how close we were to getting to that big game again, there isn't a day that goes by that there's not a player or coach on our team that doesn't think about where we want to be.
"It is definitely a motivating factor, but we also know that it is a huge process to get there."
Watching the football playoff pairing show was bittersweet for McNamara, who knew that his son wouldn't be sharing in the playoff excitement. Connor McNamara, the starting quarterback at Vernon Hills, learned earlier in the day that Vernon Hills, at 5-4, didn't get a berth because it was just a tad short on playoff points.
There were 22 teams across the state with 5-4 records that did not make the playoffs. Teams at the mark that got in had at least 39 points. Vernon Hills finished with 37 points.
"That was hard for our family. Connor is heartbroken," McNamara said. "He just played his heart out all season and we're so proud of him. But football is a great game of life lessons and hopefully he'll learn from this and come out stronger next year."
The team that denied Vernon Hills the sixth win that would have guaranteed a playoff spot was Lake Zurich. The Bears got a 38-21 come-from-behind victory over Vernon Hills on Friday night.
Lake Zurich was playing with its back against the wall for much of the season and squeezed into the playoffs with a 5-4 record and 51 playoff points, second-most in the state for the at-large qualifiers.
No. 14 Lake Zurich will take on No. 3 Addison Trail (8-1) in Class 7A action.
"We've definitely had a lot of highs and lows this season, so we're very pleased with what we've been able to accomplish to get into the playoffs," Lake Zurich coach David Proffitt said. "Everyone makes such a big deal about the numbers and the records and how you (theoretically) get a better draw if you have a better record. But I don't care if you're playing 9-0 or 5-4, every game is a big game now. Every game is win or go home.
"The good thing for us is that over the last few weeks with our situation of needing to keep winning, I think that's been good mental preparation for what we're going to face in the playoffs."
Also in Class 7A, undefeated Highland Park earned the second seed and will host No. 15 Fenwick (5-4). No. 10 Carmel (6-3) drew a road game at No. 7 Machesney Park Harlem (7-2).
"I think it's a challenging draw, but it's not an insurmountable draw, so we like that," Carmel coach Andy Bitto said. "We don't know much about them. But we know the league (Northern Illinois NIC-10). We've played Boylan before, we've played Hononegah before. We know some of the things they like to do out there."
In Class 6A, No. 3 Lakes, which is 8-1, won the North Suburban Prairie title and suffered its only loss to state-ranked Stevenson, will be hosting No. 14 Prairie Ridge (6-3). No. 11 Grayslake North (6-3) will travel to No. 6 Wheaton St. Francis (7-2) and No. 13 Lake Forest (6-3) will be at No. 4 Belvidere North (8-1).
Meanwhile, No. 8 Antioch (7-2) will be hosting No. 9 Chicago King (7-2). The Sequoits are coming off a big win over Wauconda on Friday night without top running back Griffin Hill, who was sitting out as a precaution after a knee injury slowed him two weeks ago.
"He could have played if we had needed him," Antioch coach Brian Glashagel said of Hill. "It's good that we were able to get him some extra rest.
"This is a good first round for us, and we just love hosting playoff games at Antioch. It's just a really fun time around here."