Benet ready for ESCC grind

Updated 8/21/2017 1:41 PM
  • Billy Lawler, left, and Jack Eschenbach, right, go up for a catch during Benet Academy football practice.

      Billy Lawler, left, and Jack Eschenbach, right, go up for a catch during Benet Academy football practice. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

The East Suburban Catholic Conference sent seven football teams to the playoffs last season, and perennial power Joliet Catholic didn't make the cut.

Just another year in one of the state's premier leagues.

For the fifth straight season -- extending an unprecedented streak for the program -- Benet was among the qualifiers. The Redwings missed out on the conference title after a Week 8 loss to Marist, the eventual champion, but they made up for the disappointment by advancing to the Class 7A semifinals.

Reloaded with key talent returning, this year the Redwings aim for their first ESCC title since 2012.

"These guys can do it, but we need to see it from them every week," said Benet coach Pat New. "It'll be a grind like it always is."

Luckily, the Redwings have a roster built for the grind.

It starts on defense where they return linebacker Devin Petersen, last year's leading tackler, and welcome linebacker Connor Burke as a transfer from California. Ben Cooney leads a talented secondary after snaring 8 interceptions as a junior.

Cooney also will be a major part of the offense, a unit that'll break in quarterback Matt Boyle in the wake of Jack Sznajder's three-year varsity tenure. Jack Eschenbach and Nick Keyes combined for close to 80 catches and 1,000 receiving yards.

"We think we could be more talented than last year," New said, "but the league will also be a lot better."

Marist and its defensive line duo of Minnesota-bound Elijah Teague and Indiana recruit Gavin McCabe remains the team to beat in the ESCC, but it's another deep field.

Marian Central returns a massive amount of experience led by 1,000-yard rusher Brian Niemaszek and quarterback Gavin Scott. Nazareth endured growing pains last year, but that'll pay off this season. Among the returners is Iowa State-bound lineman Isaiah Lee.

Joliet Catholic is poised to bounce back with returning running back Ke'Von Johnson. St. Viator will work with a balanced offense to offset the graduation of all-state tight end Cole Kmet, now at Notre Dame.

Carmel will have some of the league's top skill players -- highlighted by Zaire Barnes, a Western Michigan recruit, and Indiana State-bound Shaneal Greene. The Corsairs will take advantage by shifting from an option to spread offense with freshman quarterback Athan Kalikmanis.

Notre Dame, a qualifier last year, Marian Catholic and St. Patrick look to stay in the mix for one of those coveted playoff berths.

"There were three or four games last year that could have gone either way, and we pulled them out," New said. "That's the key. Those seniors last year found a way to win. It's something this group needs to do."

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