Joliet Catholic has to work to stop stubborn Vernon Hills
The most sobering aspect of playoff football is the full-stop finality a loss brings, for both the season and the careers of a team's seniors.
Trailing 34-7 at halftime of Friday's Class 5A playoff opener at third-seeded Joliet Catholic Academy, No. 14 Vernon Hills' 13 seniors probably saw the writing on the wall, but despite falling behind 48-7 at one point, they ended their careers fighting with 3 touchdowns in the final nine minutes that showed no team possessed more heart despite the 48-29 defeat.
"At halftime, we said this could be our last 24 minutes on the field, so we wanted to make the most of it," said senior quarterback Connor McNamara, a three-year starter. "It shows the heart we had all year."
While the score would seem to indicate that the Cougars (6-4) were never in the contest, they actually knocked the Hilltoppers (9-1) back on their heels in the first quarter.
After JCA opened the game with a 6-play, 66-yard drive capped by Ke'von Johnson's 17-yard run for a 6-0 lead, the Cougars used Damian Morecki's recovery of a fumbled punt to set up a 58-yard scoring drive that was capped by McNamara's 4-yard pass to Kyle Hull with Andres Salazar's PAT kick giving the Cougars a 7-6 lead after one quarter.
Vernon Hills actually had a chance to stretch its lead late in the opening frame, but McNamara's fourth-down pass from the Hilltoppers 13 to Chris Mariella in the end zone was broken up by JCA's Nick Sandora.
That stop lit the fuse on the Hilltoppers' offense as they scored 4 touchdowns in less than 7 second-quarter minutes to take control of the game.
"We needed to catch the touchdown we dropped in the end zone," said Vernon Hills coach Bill Bellecomo. "We had to make that play. That was our plan, get a fast start and get the momentum. We also couldn't get off the field on fourth down a couple times and they made some big plays on third down, but we had a lot of young guys on defense and hopefully they'll learn from that."
JCA's second-quarter blitz began with Michael Johnson's 5-yard run, which was followed in quick succession by Ke'von Johnson's 6-yard score, Michael Johnson's 50-yard burst and Cade Earl's 11-yard pass to Ke'von Johnson with 31 seconds left in the half. JCA then got Michael Johnson's 23-yard sprint and Harry Davis' 21-yard score in the third quarter, necessitating a running clock for the game's final 16 minutes.
After McNamara, who completed the final 17 passes of his career and 36 of 55 for 292 yards in the game, found Hull for a 7-yard score, the Cougars recovered two onside kicks to set up McNamara scoring tosses of 17 yards to Andres Salazar and 24 yards to Kiwanne Durant.
"That was a great way for (McNamara) to go out after quarterbacking three years for us," said Bellecomo, "but that's been our story all year--we had opportunities to make plays and couldn't capitalize. We have to learn that little things can turn into big things."