Usma-Harper steps up big for Carmel
The forecast seemed gloomy for the Carmel football team back in Week 5 when top running back and playmaker Sean Lynch went down.
The senior suffered a lower body injury, left the game and was eventually ruled out for the rest of the season.
Next in line at running back for the Corsairs was a sophomore, Syone Usma-Harper.
"Earlier this season, we were rotating Syone in a little bit because we didn't want to put too much on him as a sophomore," Carmel coach Blake Annen said. "Then, when Sean went down, we were asking Syone to step in and step up."
And Usma-Harper has done just that.
In the three games that Usma-Harper has gotten heavy reps since Lynch's injury, he has scored at least one touchdown in each game, and against St. Viator, he scored 3 touchdowns.
On Saturday against Marian Central, Usma-Harper scored 2 touchdowns.
"Syone has done a really good job for us stepping up," Annen said. "He's had big runs on third down, he has a knack for finding the end zone and he's got a really good mix of speed and power, especially for a sophomore."
"He's also been so coachable and willing to learn. Getting to watch Sean at the beginning of the year, it was a great example for him. He's taken in all the tips and advice and he's grown as a running back at a lot faster rate than probably anyone could have expected."
Lynch-pin: Injury struck down Carmel running back Sean Lynch right in full stride.
The senior was having a strong season for the Corsairs and was the center of the offense, racking up multiple 100-yard rushing games, and scoring regular touchdowns.
Lynch is now out for the season due to the lower body injury that he suffered during the St. Viator game in Week 5.
But Lynch is trying to take this setback in stride, and is trying to stay positive.
"He still expects to be a leader for us," Carmel coach Blake Annen said of Lynch. "You just feel so bad for him. Anytime a senior gets hurt and it ends his season, that's so difficult. But he's handling it well and he still has a lot of great film before he got hurt. I still think that gives him a shot with a lot of college coaches."
Lynch is intrigued by the idea of playing football in college, but he does have options. One really good one, as a matter of fact.
Lynch, a standout outfielder for the Carmel baseball team, has committed to play baseball for Eastern Illinois. Annen says Lynch has shown interest in possibly playing both baseball and football in college.
Double the QB: Carmel has two options at quarterback: Steven Gracia and Avery Bugej.
Both have made plays for the Corsairs this season, and both rushed for touchdowns on Saturday in a win against Marian Central.
"They both are very good quarterbacks and they both bring very different qualities to the table," Carmel coach Blake Annen said. "Steven goes through his reads and progressions really well and Avery is a really good runner. He's a lacrosse player and brings some of that good running and athleticism to the field.
"We like to use different guys in different situations."
Still alive: After starting out with losses in three of its first four games, Carmel is still alive for a playoff berth.
The 3-4 Corsairs would need to win out in games against Notre Dame and St. Patrick and then have enough playoff points to qualify.
Carmel currently has 34 playoff points, the second-most playoff points in all of Lake County after Highland Park (36).
"Things are coming together for us and I like the vibe of our team right now," said Carmel coach Blake Annen, in his first year at the helm. "We will be playing two tough teams but we see these last two games as two very winnable games, and they are both at home.
"The kids are excited that we have improved since last year (Carmel went 1-8 in 2017) and that the playoffs are a possibility. We play in a tough conference so we have a good amount of playoff points to be a 5-4 team that could make it. But if we don't win our next two games, it won't matter how many points we have. We really have to keep our focus."
Air show: Libertyville, struggling on offense for much of this season, put up its best numbers of the season on Saturday against Mundelein.
The Wildcats aired it out and hurt Mundelein with its passing game to the tune of 336 yards.
Wide receiver Jack Turco had his biggest and best game of the season, hauling in 9 catches for more than 200 yards and 2 touchdown receptions.
Quarterback Thomas Monken also had his most productive game of the season, completing 14-of-23 passes for 336 yards and 3 touchdowns.
"It was a really good game for us on offense," Libertyville coach Mike Jones said. "But it was more about our execution. It's not like we made any big changes, we just executed what we were supposed to do, and we did the little things we needed to do."
Sam Paden (3 catches for 52 yards) and Ben Lopez (1 touchdown reception) also were key targets for Monken.
Trending upward: The Libertyville defense is coming off its best two games of the season.
Libertyville coach Mike Jones says his team was strong defensively against Lake Zurich last week, holding the Bears to just 14 points, albeit in a loss.
Then, on Saturday against Mundelein, Libertyville again allowed only 14 points and made life consistently rough for the Mundelein offense.
"Our defense has been playing really well," Jones said. "They've been getting better and better every week. We have a new defense this season. We're more of a pressure defense than a read defense now. We're in a 3-4 but it's never really 3, it's more like 4 or 5 or 6 guys putting on pressure. I think it may have taken some time for our guys to get used to it, but now, we're really doing well putting pressure on offenses. It's sacks, it's hurries, it's everything."
Linebacker Josh Stair has been causing his share of the havoc.
Stair was involved in multiple blitzes against Mundelein and played well against Lake Zurich.
"He's great at getting in there and making a mess (for the opposing offense)," Jones said of Stair.
Meanwhile, defensive lineman Jonathan Palmieri also came up big against Mundelein, registering 3 tackles for loss and 1 sack and 2 fumble recoveries.
"He was all over the field," Jones said of Palmieri. "He's always around the ball."
Tough lessons: At 2-5, Libertyville now has no chance of making the playoffs.
But all is not lost for the Wildcats.
Head coach Mike Jones wants to see what his players are made of in their final two games against Lake Forest and Zion-Benton, two teams with playoff hopes.
"Just because circumstances aren't what you want, you can't change who you are or what you are about," Jones said. "It's easy to do things and put in the effort when everything is going well, but how do you handle it when things are tough. Are you a person who has grit, or one who doesn't. Are you still going to give your best effort?
"So far, our guys have been really good with that and I credit them a lot for that. It's a great life lesson, and really, that's what we're trying to get across anyway with these kids."