Stutzman, Lake Zurich keep measuring up
It wasn't the Chicago Bears that Joey Stutzman idolized as a young grade schooler, it was the Lake Zurich Bears.
"Lake Zurich, when I was younger, was my Chicago Bears team," said Stutzman, Lake Zurich's star running back. "On Sundays, I would just be thinking about Lake Zurich. Lake Zurich was my team.
"If you asked all my friends, they'd tell you I've always been a Lake Zurich guy. I've been a huge fan of Lake Zurich football pretty much my entire life."
Stutzman's first Lake Zurich football game was in 2006, when he was 6 years old. It was the Class 7A state championship game, and Lake Zurich lost to St. Rita, 35-24. The very next year, he also went to the Bears' Class 7A state championship triumph, a 7-3 win over Wheaton Warrenville South.
With Stutzman no doubt cheering loudly from the stands, Lake Zurich then evened the score with St. Rita a few years later in 2010, getting a win in the Class 7A state semifinals over the Mustangs.
On Saturday, as if the stars aligned perfectly for Stutzman, he was directly involved in helping Lake Zurich take firm control of a 2-1 lead in the playoff series with St. Rita.
Stutzman scored 3 touchdowns as No. 3 Lake Zurich rolled over No. 11 St. Rita on its own field on Chicago's South Side, 49-17 in Class 7A quarterfinal action.
Lake Zurich, which improves to 12-0 on the season, now advances to the state semifinals to face No. 18 Mt. Carmel (9-3), a 21-18 quarterfinal winner over No. 7 East St. Louis (10-2). The Bears will host Mt. Carmel, likely next Saturday.
St. Rita, meanwhile, closes its season with a 9-3 record.
"I was talking to Coach (Luke Mertens) about the St. Rita thing and I was telling him how fun it would be to get a win this time," Stutzman said. "I mean, with those early Lake Zurich teams, that 2006 team and the 2007 team, I knew all the players, even all the offensive linemen.
"I even had this video game, 'Football Hereos,' and you could make your own team and I would change all the names and put all the Lake Zurich guys in there and that would be my team (for the video game).
"It's just awesome to be here now. It's a great feeling to be going to the semis with this team. I just love this team and I love Lake Zurich football. I've had so much fun here. This has been the best four years -- well, almost four years -- so far, of my life."
Stutzman had a pretty special almost four quarters down on the South Side.
He and most of the other starters were subbed out late in the game because they did their damage, and a lot of it, early.
Stutzman rushed for 95 yards and 3 touchdowns on 18 carries and scored 2 of his touchdowns before halftime, including a 22-yard scamper.
Lake Zurich was up 14-3 by the end of the first quarter and 35-10 at halftime.
While Stutzman was doing his thing on the ground, quarterback Evan Lewandowski, who has had a spectacular season and has set all kinds of Lake Zurich passing records in the process, gave another masterful performance.
After St. Rita took an early 3-0 lead on a 27-yard field goal by Gavin Mottl, Lewandowski put his foot on the gas of the Lake Zurich offense and engineered back-to-back scoring drives that yielded pretty touchdown passes.
The first was a 34-yard touchdown pass to Dylan Ippolito. When St. Rita fumbled the ensuing kickoff, the Bears and Lewandowski went right back to work and on the second play of the drive, Lewandowski connected with Payton Powell on a nifty 25-yard flea-flicker touchdown pass.
Powell (4 catches, 100 yards) and Lewandowski also connected in the second quarter for a 58-yard touchdown pass.
On the game, Lewandowski completed 13-of-23 passes for 242 yards and 3 touchdowns.
"What's really important, and we've talked about it all year, is that you have to have balance," Mertens said. "You can't be a one-trick pony this time of year. We really try our best to be as balanced as we can on offense and I think tonight we did probably our best this season at being balanced. This was one of our better games at being able to have balance throughout."
Lake Zurich got two scores in the second half, a 1-yard run by Stutzman and a 2-yard run by Wisconsin-bound linebacker Jack Sanborn, who had 2 carries but mostly made his mark on defense.
Speaking of the defense, Lake Zurich kept a St. Rita team that was averaging 32 points and better than 200 rushing yards per game firmly in check.
Indiana State-bound running back Chris Childers had just 30 rushing yards on 14 attempts. He scored St. Rita's first touchdown, a 1-yard run just before halftime.
Overall, the Mustangs rushed for 96 yards.
And they were picked off 3 times, twice by Austin LePage, who now has a Lake Zurich school record-tying 10 interceptions on the season.
"Credit to Lake Zurich, they came out with a bang," Childers said. "They played better than us. Straight up. This was one of the best defenses we've seen this season. Their linebacker Sanborn is really good. He's great at plugging holes. I'm really confident that they're going to go to state and make some noise."
If Lake Zurich can get by Mt. Carmel next week, it would be the Bears' fifth trip downstate, and they would get a shot at their second state championship in school history.
Oddly enough, it would be just as proud a moment for St. Rita coach Todd Kuska. Kuska employed Mertens as a coach on his staff for several years before Mertens was named the first head coach at Lakes High School more than a decade ago.
"Obviously, I'm disappointed that we lost," Kuska said. "But I'm happy for (Mertens). He's the right man for the job for them and he's going to do great things there. I couldn't be happier for him."