No playoffs, but still progress for these teams

Updated 10/19/2017 9:21 PM
  • Coach Jason Schaal and his Grayslake Central football program took a big step forward, with an opportunity to finish with 4 wins this season entering Week 9.

      Coach Jason Schaal and his Grayslake Central football program took a big step forward, with an opportunity to finish with 4 wins this season entering Week 9. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

The IHSA football playoffs are right around the corner. In fact, the brackets will be announced live at 8 p.m Saturday night on NBC Sports Chicago.

There are 14 schools in the Daily Herald's Lake County coverage area and five of them are already guaranteed a spot in the playoffs: Lake Zurich, Stevenson, Antioch, Grayslake North and Lakes.

Warren, with 5 wins, is likely in on playoff points. The Blue Devils currently have an impressive 41 points, tied for second-most in the North Suburban Conference.

Meanwhile, Libertyville, at 4-4, could make the playoffs on points with a win against Zion-Benton tonight. The Wildcats also have 41 playoff points.

That would be seven of the Daily Herald's Lake County football teams in the playoffs.

So what about the other seven teams? What is their story as the 2017 regular season comes to an end tonight?

I checked in with coaches from all seven teams, and while they are disappointed that their teams will not play on into the playoffs, they each found some positives from the season to highlight.

Grayslake Central Rams (3-5, 3-3 Northern Lake County Conference)

Making history: In recent years, Grayslake Central has struggled in football. In fact, prior to the 2017 season, the Rams had won just one game in the previous three seasons combined.

But by finishing with a win tonight over Wauconda, Grayslake Central would get not only a fourth win, but would post a winning record in conference play for the first time since 2012.

"There are so many positives from this season," Grayslake Central coach Jason Schaal said. "This group has been such a pleasure to work with. Their work ethic and their energy has been contagious to our entire program."

The quarterback position produced some interesting storylines this season at Grayslake Central.

When starter Sam Lennartz went down with a knee injury in the season opener, wide receiver Nick Paul stepped in at quarterback and had the game of his life in leading the Rams to their first win of the season in Week 3, against Grant. Paul led Grayslake Central to another win in Week 4 and suddenly the Rams were sitting among the league leaders in the standings at 2-0.

Lennartz returned later in the season and got right back into the grove. He set two school records: most completions in a game (23) and most passing yards in a game (237) and is on target for other career records.

Vernon Hills Cougars (2-6, 1-3 Central Suburban League North)

Youth movement: Vernon Hills went from playing in the Class 5A state championship game last season to sitting on two wins through eight weeks of this season.

But a young team can experience growing pains like that.

"We were very young this year," Vernon Hills coach Bill Bellecomo said. "We had five sophomores starting on defense and were equally young on offense. Eight starters on offense will be back next year."

Meanwhile, there will be an infusion of even more good young talent to the varsity as the current freshman team is undefeated and had good numbers with 32 players on the roster.

"And our eighth graders also have some big numbers and are playing really well. Our lightweight team is 5-0 and our heavyweight team is 3-2," Bellecomo said. "We are hoping to get 40 kids out for freshman football next year."

Round Lake Panthers (2-6, 0-6 Northern Lake County Conference)

Great start: With its 2-0 start, Round Lake got off to its best start since 2006.

It also got the community excited about Round Lake football for the first time in a long time.

"People in the community started getting into it, building up that Panther Pride and even though we've kind of fallen down a little bit since then, they are still around," Round Lake coach Cristo Garza said. "We really had an outpouring of alumni, people who live here in Round Lake, so many people hearing about how well we started and wanting to be a part of it and wanting to give back to the program. We've had people bringing food and drinks for our kids before games, cupcakes, chili. It's been great."

Garza says the current seniors had a big role in getting the season off to such a great start.

They were hungry after struggling the previous three seasons.

"Of our 23 seniors, all of them are four-year football players," Garza said. "They've been through a lot. I told our guys it's almost an anomaly that they all stuck with it. To have that many seniors and to have had them all in the program for four is pretty amazing. They all deserve a lot of credit for all the good things that happened to us."

Mundelein Mustangs (2-6, 1-5 North Suburban Conference)

Lessons learned: In a tough and competitive North Suburban Conference, Mundelein has a tall order of trying to reverse years of being a struggling program.

But coach Larry Calhoun is optimistic that the wins will come, as long as there are still lessons that are being learned.

"We are a young football team and will graduate only 11 seniors," Calhoun said. "We have a lot of underclassmen that were able to gain valuable experience to work toward establishing our new culture.

"I believe that the benefits of playing football go far beyond the wins and losses. Our young men learn about discipline and what it means to work. They learn about leadership and the necessity of preparation and how to sacrifice for the greater good."

Wauconda Bulldogs (1-7, 1-5 Northern Lake County Conference)

Dealing with adversity: This has not been an easy season for Wauconda. In many ways.

Of course, there is the record, and the fact that Wauconda didn't get its first win until Week 7. But raging illnesses have also wiped out large numbers of varsity players all throughout the season. And then the toughest of them all: assistant coach Joe Ryback died suddenly after the Bulldogs' Week 4 loss to Lakes.

"The big positive is the kids kept showing up to practice and to play," Wauconda coach Dave Mills said. "The seniors showed a tremendous amount of leadership and grit. As their coach, I was very proud to see them do all the tough but right things. The team was able to deal with some very tough lessons and keep moving forward. That is what I will remember about this team, they kept moving forward.

"It is easy to talk about being a family as a team when you are winning and things are going your way. It is incredible to watch young men act as a family when things are tough and hard. This team did the incredible. They are a family."

Carmel Corsairs (1-7, 1-5 East Suburban Catholic Conference)

Injury bug: It's been more than two decades since Andy Bitto took over as head coach at Carmel.

This season, he saw a first.

An injury bug that just kept biting and biting and biting.

The Corsairs lost 12 starters, most of them for the season, to various injuries. Five of those starters has season-ending knee injuries.

There were also serious back and ankle injuries. And broken bones.

And all this came as the Corsairs tried to play a brutal schedule that included 9 games against 8 playoff teams.

"I've never had this many injuries before, especially serious injuries, season-ending injuries," Bitto said. "It can be part of the game, so you can't use it as an excuse. But it is tough. It was definitely a bad avalanche of things that happened.

"The thing you look at is how you deal with it. I'm just really proud of our kids because they've been completely positive and they've stayed engaged. The season didn't go the way they wanted, but they've kept playing hard."

Bitto saw that more than ever last week when Carmel got its first win of the season, against St. Patrick.

"Every first down, our kids were excited. We got an on-side kick. That was fun. The kids were having fun with it," Bitto said. "When we won the game, it was like we had won a playoff game. The kids were so excited."

Grant Bulldogs (1-7, 1-5 Northern Lake County Conference)

New direction: After three tough seasons, Grant got a new head coach in Chris Robinson, a former Grant Bulldog football player himself.

With a new coach and a new offense and a lot of new young players (six sophomores starting on defense alone), the Bulldogs were expecting some bumps along the road.

Grant didn't get its first win of the season until last week, a 9-7 nail-biter over Wauconda. The Bulldogs will try to equal its win total from last season (2) tonight against Round Lake.

"This season did not go the way any of us wanted it to, record-wise, but the culture of Grant football is seeing a lot of positive changes which is encouraging. We've also experienced a different atmosphere at Grant this year, which has been overwhelmingly supportive.

"Our seniors have done an amazing job leading our team through some rough experiences and now it is up to our juniors and sophomores to build on that, commit to the weight room and speed-training all off-season.


Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw

Article Comments ()
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.