This time, Willowbrook riding momentum into playoffs
Last year Willowbrook entered the playoffs with a Week 9 loss to Leyden that cost the Warriors a shot at the West Suburban Gold title. They shook off the disappointment to reach the Class 7A quarterfinals.
This season the Warriors make another postseason appearance on the heels of last week's win over Downers Grove South that sealed the program's first outright Gold title and first conference title since 1982.
The mood is different this year, but the Warriors still need to refocus on the playoffs like they did with success a season ago.
"Just as much as we were disappointed and then we reset, we'll enjoy this for a little while and reset and go from there," said Willowbrook coach Nick Hildreth.
Willowbrook (8-1) opens as the fourth seed in the northern Class 6A 16-team bracket. The Warriors face No. 13 Deerfield (5-4) in Saturday's opening-round game.
With seven straight wins and the program's first 8-win regular season since 1994, the Warriors again have a bunch of momentum.
"I think we'd prefer to go into the playoffs like this, but we'll see," Hildreth said. "We need to keep playing well."
The hallmark of defending Class 3A champion IC Catholic Prep remains taking things one day at a time.
"That's something that's kind of been with us since the beginning," Knights coach Bill Krefft said. "We're not worried about anyone else, we're not thinking about anyone else. We're worried about IC and winning the next practice."
ICCP (8-1) got a sharp dose of reality when returning all-state quarterback and four-year starter Luke Ricobene went down with a season-ending knee injury in Week 2 against St. Laurence, the Knights' sole loss.
After catching their breath Krefft, offensive coordinator Tony Navigato, defensive coordinator Roger Kelley and fellow ICCP gurus such as Matt Bowen shifted gears. Particularly since the injury to Ricobene, a defensive back in key situations, affected several positions.
"When Luke went down it took six or seven people to take his place," Krefft said.
Fortunately for the Knights, and similar to typically late-November programs such as Glenbard West and Montini, extra weeks of practice provided valuable experience to backups and scout team players.
Khalil Saunders quickly went out injured in a brief stint at quarterback before tight end, receiver and backup quarterback C.J. West took over the zone-read offense.
Completing 64 percent of his passes for 19 touchdowns to only 2 interceptions, West leads an offense that has scored 460 points. Linebackers Kemon Reese, Kevin Cooke and Khali Saunders are the top tacklers on a defense that's allowed 91 points. The Knights' 41-point average margin of victory leads all Class 3A teams entering Friday's playoff opener against Watseka. They'll look no further ahead than that.
"The resilience and adaptability is much greater than teams we've had in the past," Krefft said. "I see this team as one that's competing to win a round-one playoff game."
Downers Grove North has been in this position before. Many times, in fact.
So when the Trojans (5-4) saw they were seeded 31st in the Class 7A field, they didn't shy away from a first-round meeting against No. 2 Normal Community (9-0). They welcomed the challenge.
"Every year we play better as the season goes along," said Trojans coach John Wander. "I think it's a matter of hitting our stride late in the year and just getting better at what we do."
Downers North entered the playoffs at 5-4 five times since 2008, and three times the Trojans upset a much higher seed.
In 2008 Downers North beat second-seeded Wheaton Warrenville South and No. 3 Proviso East. The Trojans topped No. 1 Batavia and No. 5 Thornton in 2012, and the next year beat No. 1 Whitney Young and No. 5 WW South.
Twice the Trojans fell in the first round to heavily favored teams: No. 3 Mt. Carmel in 2006 and No. 3 Libertyville in 2015. Both teams wound up finishing second in the state.
The intense competitiveness stems from Downers North's play in the West Suburban Silver. Facing the annual gauntlet of Glenbard West, Lyons Twp., Hinsdale Central and Oak Park takes its toll, but the Trojans are battle-tested if they survive for the playoffs.
A comeback win over Oak Park in Week 6 turned out to be the victory that pushed Downers North into the postseason.
"Our conference is as competitive top to bottom as any other conference in the state," Wander said. "These kids have gone up against teams like Glenbard West, so they don't fear anyone."
Naperville Central (7-2) faces a familiar foe in the opening round of the Class 8A playoffs. As the 13th seed, the Redhawks take on former DuPage Valley Conference member and 20th seed West Aurora (7-2).
Redhawks coach Mike Stine sees fragments of current DVC teams in this Blackhawks group. Thanks to that experience, he feels his team will be better prepared heading into Friday's matchup.
"The DVC prepares you for the playoffs because you see a little bit of everything," Stine said. "It definitely helps this time of year."
Stine sees Lake Park's athleticism, Wheaton North's ability to control the ball and Neuqua Valley's 3-5-3 defense all in West Aurora's game plan.
After a year away from the playoffs, the Redhawks are eager to put their DVC experience back to good use.
"It's nice to be back in the playoffs," Stine said. "We feel like we're ready."
Standing at 3-4 with two DuPage Valley Conference foes remaining, one of them defending conference co-champion Neuqua Valley, makes for a rough road to a playoff berth.
Glenbard North kept plugging away.
"We never said it's do or die," Panthers coach Ryan Wilkens said. "We just stayed focused on what we can control."
That meant the same formula Glenbard North (5-4) has used for most of its 21 playoff appearances -- a pounding ground game, rugged defense, an athletic secondary and enough passing to keep teams honest.
The combination of a huge game on both sides of the ball by tailback-linebacker Jayleen Fitzpatrick, sophomore Angelo Cusumano's 100 yards rushing and 2 interceptions by another sophomore, Kobie Jamison, punched the Panthers' ticket into the postseason with a 24-14 defeat of Neuqua Valley. Seeded 29th in the Class 7A playoffs, now all the pressure is on No. 4 Batavia.
"We never really talked about it much, never harped on it," Wilkens said of the playoff hunt. "We talked about executing, about kids doing their jobs."
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