A first look at the first round ... and beyond
By Dave Oberhelman and Kevin Schmit
For three months 28 DuPage County high school football teams have battled for the right to reach the Illinois High School Association state series.
Below are those who have succeeded in that journey and the opponents they've drawn to start the second season, which culminates Nov. 23-24 at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.
DuPage County's Class 8A qualifiers
No. 25 Neuqua Valley (6-3)
First-round opponent: vs. No. 8 Warren (8-1)
The resume: The Wildcats return to the postseason for a 14th time after their seven-year streak was snapped last season despite a 5-4 record. Neuqua's top win this fall came Week 6, 47-16 over Waubonsie Valley, displaying dynamic potential. Running back Will Chevalier and receiver Brandt Stare are deadly in the open field; Stare has returned 4 kickoffs for touchdowns.
The draw: Warren was unbeaten in the North Suburban Conference for the first time since 2008. Defensive lineman Zack Pelland and the Blue Devils have 5 shutout wins and won 8 straight games after a season-opening loss to Barrington. Neuqua is 6-7 in first-round games and has never faced Warren.
Advancement: Winner plays the No. 24 Conant at No. 9 Hinsdale Central winner.
No. 9 Hinsdale Central (7-2)
First-round opponent: vs. No. 24 Conant (6-3)
The resume: The Red Devils lost standout running back Luke Skokna to a knee injury in the season opener, but they've forged ahead with Matt Bobak and earned a share of the West Suburban Silver title. Hinsdale Central's losses were to Willowbrook and Glenbard West, but the Red Devils also beat Naperville Central and Oak Park. Definitely a dangerous team.
The draw: Hinsdale Central is in the playoffs for the eighth straight season but it hasn't made it past the second round since 2008. A second-rounder against Warren might be similar to Oak Park. The Blue Devils have only allowed 54 points. Neuqua Valley, meanwhile, beat Hinsdale Central in a 2015 playoff opener.
Advancement: Winner plays the No. 25 Neuqua Valley at No. 8 Warren winner.
No. 21 Naperville Central (6-3)
First-round opponent: vs. No. 12 Plainfield South (7-2)
The resume: This is where that tough schedule pays off. The Redhawks lost to unbeaten Lincoln-Way East and Cary-Grove, but now they're battle-tested and ready to be a scary 21st seed. Western Michigan-bound quarterback Payton Thorne is one of the top players in the Class 8A bracket. He's got plenty of skill to work with between Cade McDonald, Sam Jackson and Danny Hughes.
The draw: A win likely matches the Redhawks against the RedHawks ... Marist. The RedHawks have been on the back-burner since a 4-point season-opening loss to Brother Rice, but they rolled through an awfully tough East Suburban Catholic Conference. Naperville Central used to face Stevenson in nonconference play.
Advancement: Winner plays the No. 28 Stevenson at No. 5 Marist winner.
No. 18 Glenbard West (7-2)
First-round opponent: vs. No. 15 Bartlett (7-2)
The resume: Losses to Maine South and Oak Park frame the postseason for the Hilltoppers, who haven't lost a first-round game since 2002. We know they can run the ball as good as anyone with Tyquan Cox, Nick Seifert, Joey Richmond and quarterback Tommy Bleker. And the defense is solid -- when healthy, which has been an issue. It's a team with potential, but ...
The draw: If the Hilltoppers beat Bartlett they'll likely face the most complete team in the state in Lincoln-Way East. To advance in the bracket (specifically, advance past the Griffins), Glenbard West must be at full strength defensively and show it can throw the ball with consistency.
Advancement: Winner plays the No. 31 St. Charles East at No. 2 Lincoln-Way East winner.
No. 22 Waubonsie Valley (6-3)
First-round opponent: vs. No. 11 Bolingbrook (7-2)
The resume: Waubonsie Valley has no problem being a lower seed. In recent seasons as a No. 30 and No. 31 seed it beat a No. 3 and a No. 2. In the playoffs after a 10-year streak snapped in 2017, the Warriors are based around defenders such as linebacker Carson O'Donnell, but tailback Bryce Logan has topped 1,000 yards rushing. Ended a three-game losing streak in Week 9.
The draw: An upper-echelon 8A team all season with Big Ten commits Cameron Mitchell and Anthony Williams Jr., Bolingbrook lost to Homewood-Flossmoor and Lincoln-Way East both by shutout. Seems amazing for a team with a 34-28 playoff record -- and the 2011 8A title -- never to have faced Waubonsie Valley.
Advancement: Winner plays the No. 27 Huntley at No. 6 Maine South winner.
DuPage County's Class 7A qualifiers
No. 5 Willowbrook (9-0)
First-round opponent: vs. No. 28 Lincoln Park (5-4)
The resume: The Warriors surge into the playoffs after winning their second straight outright WSC Gold title and posting their first 9-0 regular season since 1975. Willowbrook advanced to the state quarterfinals in each of the last two seasons. Led by the brother tandem of Sam and Scott Tumilty, this confident and focused group wants to advance even further this year.
The draw: Lincoln Park beat one team with a winning record, and that was by 6 points. It's a good opener for Willowbrook but then things get interesting if Benet beats Maine West. Coming from a power conference like the East Suburban Catholic, the Redwings would be a tough hurdle to a third straight quarterfinal berth.
Advancement: Winner plays the No. 21 Benet at No. 12 Maine West winner.
No. 21 Benet (6-3)
First-round opponent: vs. No. 12 Maine West (8-1)
The resume: Like most seasons in the East Suburban Catholic Conference, it's been a challenge for Benet. But here the Redwings are, back in the playoffs for an unprecedented seventh straight season. Health has been a major issue for Benet, which especially needs to heal up on its lines. It'll be a minefield trying to reach the semifinals for a third straight season.
The draw: Rematch anyone? These "rivals" meet in the first round for a second straight year. Last year, as a 16 seed, Benet beat Maine West 35-13. Five times the Warriors have notched at least 40 points, and they've also hit 50 and 60 points. Benet has the defense to deal with a high-powered offense, though.
Advancement: Winner plays the No. 28 Lincoln Park at No. 5 Willowbrook winner.
No. 2 Glenbard East (9-0)
First-round opponent: vs. No. 31 Prospect (5-4)
The resume: A landmark season. It's the Rams' second playoff season and first since 1999 when they made the 6A semifinals in the last year of a six-class system. Glenbard East outscored foes 372-86 in its first perfect regular season. Its Upstate Eight Conference title was its first conference crown since 1965. Quarterback Bret Bushka has accounted for 2,194 yards, 33 touchdowns.
The draw: Tied for third in the Mid-Suburban East and allowing 276 points this season, Prospect rallied past 1-8 Elk Grove 28-21 to reach the playoffs for the first since 2012. Glenbard East's defense averages only 133 yards allowed, potentially tested by legendary program East St. Louis (7-2).
Advancement: Winner plays the No. 18 Hoffman Estates at No. 15 East St. Louis winner.
No. 14 Wheaton Warrenville South (8-1)
First-round opponent: vs. No. 19 Belleville West (7-2)
The resume: Welcome back, Tiger Town. After three straight 2-7 seasons WW South is back in the playoffs for the first time since 2014. Defense and special teams, with record-breaking kicker Jack Olsen, keyed the turnaround. With defensive lineman Jack Kelly and defensive back Joe Ives, the Tigers powered through their schedule by allowing single-digit scoring five times.
The draw: With most of the 7A powers on the other side of the bracket, it's actually a pretty good draw. Hard to say what to expect in a second-round matchup. Hononegah plays in a closed conference and Buffalo Grove was up and down in the Mid-Suburban East. A surprising run could continue for the Tigers.
Advancement: Winner plays the No. 30 Buffalo Grove at No. 3 Hononegah winner.
DuPage County's Class 6A qualifier
No. 12 Hinsdale South (6-3)
First-round opponent: vs. No. 5 Prairie Ridge (7-2)
The resume: Hinsdale South has no wins against teams with a winning record, but in past seasons we've seen what the Hornets can do in the Class 6A bracket. Moving junior Marquese Garrett from running back to quarterback was a major factor in returning to the playoffs. Now the Hornets need to show that playing a Class 8A-heavy schedule has paid off.
The draw: Starting with the defending 6A champion isn't ideal, but this is not the same Wolves team that was led by graduated all-stater Samson Evans. Still, it won't be easy for the Hornets to get out of the first round. Phillips, last year's 5A champion, might await in a tough second-round matchup.
Advancement: Winner plays the No. 13 Lake Forest at No. 4 Phillips winner.
DuPage County's Class 5A qualifiers
No. 4 Montini (8-1)
First-round opponent: vs. No. 13 Woodstock North (5-4)
The resume: Promoted to the Chicago Catholic League Blue, Montini was unbeaten until falling to 9-0 Brother Rice on Friday. The six-time state champion -- four straight from 2009-12 -- has made the playoffs a 5A-high 26 straight years. Playing both Deontay Bell and Robert Brazziel at quarterback has worked for the Broncos, back in Class 5A for the first time since 2014.
The draw: Woodstock North's 2-4 start didn't scream playoffs, but the Thunder beat three straight 2-7 teams to make it in. Montini beat Woodstock North 49-14 in 2011. Two straight one-and-dones have aided Montini's focus. It's 5-0 against Sycamore and may see No. 1 seed Payton in the quarterfinals.
Advancement: Winner plays the No. 12 Rochelle at No. 5 Sycamore winner.
No. 14 Glenbard South (5-4)
First-round opponent: vs. No. 3 Rockford Boylan (8-1)
The resume: The Raiders picked off 6 West Chicago passes to help reach the postseason for an eighth straight season and 12th time in 13 years. The Upstate Eight Conference newcomer allowed 253 points while scoring 214 but has won its playoff opener seven times in its last 12 appearances. Receiver Tavion Keith and running back Antonio Carter are getting healthy at the right time.
The draw: Boylan has made the playoffs all but two times since 1999. A usual suspect in the NIC-10, the Titans' 349 points scored and 78 allowed led that league and they lost only to 9-0 Hononegah, 17-6. If Glenbard South beats the odds it may see a St. Francis program it beat in a 2013 playoff opener.
Advancement: Winner plays the No. 11 Amundsen at No. 6 St. Francis winner.
No. 6 St. Francis (7-2)
First-round opponent: vs. No. 11 Amundsen (5-4)
The resume: The Spartans shook off successive 1-8 seasons to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2014, when they reached the 6A semifinals. St. Francis' sole losses came against 9-0 IC Catholic and 8-1 Bishop McNamara in its new conference, the Metro Suburban Blue. Sophomore quarterback Tommy Rittenhouse already has that wily gunslinger look that can lift a team.
The draw: This is Amundsen's first postseason appearance. The Vikings had a whopping 48 playoff points but enter the playoffs on a two-game losing streak. St. Francis, which has never faced a Chicago Public League team in the playoffs, may bring a physicality that Amundsen is unaccustomed to.
Advancement: Winner plays the No. 14 Glenbard South at No. 3 Rockford Boylan winner.
DuPage County's Class 4A qualifiers
No. 1 IC Catholic Prep (9-0)
First-round opponent: vs. No. 16 Raby (5-4)
The resume: The IHSA success adjustment bumped the two-time defending Class 3A champion to 4A. The Knights quickly proved worthy in lopsided wins over Belleville Althoff and Joliet Catholic, and it dealt 8-1 Bishop McNamara its sole loss. Sophomore running back Kyle Franklin has run for 1,297 yards, 22 touchdowns. ICCP has outscored foes 402-67, forcing a running clock eight of nine games.
The draw: Mid-American Conference recruits Romel Goston and Marshawn Foster, receiver-defensive backs, will be an ICCP focus. Two of Raby's losses came against Simeon and Phillips, no shame there. It wouldn't happen until the state final, but McNamara is a No. 3 seed in the southern half of 4A.
Advancement: Winner plays the No. 9 Stillman Valley at No. 8 Dixon winner.
No. 15 Wheaton Academy (5-4)
First-round opponent: vs. No. 2 Coal City (8-1)
The resume: The Warriors reached the playoffs for the fourth time overall and the third time in four years despite a Week 9 loss. Wheaton Academy quarterback Ben Thorson threw for 383 of his 1,875 yards on the season. Sophomore linebacker Trevor Donna has made a team-high 78 tackles, 14 for loss. In 2009 as a No. 16 seed in Class 5A, the Warriors beat No. 1 Hillcrest 20-19.
The draw: Coal City's defense is as strong as Lisle coach Paul Parpet Sr. declared before the Coalers beat Lisle 43-14 on Friday. That was 8 more points than Coal City usually gives up, its average 6.2 points allowed the best of any 4A playoff team. Still, Wheaton Academy has upset favorites before.
Advancement: Winner plays the No. 10 Johnsburg at No. 7 Agricultural Science winner.
DuPage County's Class 3A qualifier
No. 4 Lisle (8-1)
First-round opponent: vs. No. 13 Dwight (6-3)
The resume: The Lions won the Interstate Eight Conference Small Division, their first conference football title since 1981. Lisle comes off a 43-13 loss to ranked IEC Large foe Coal City but is in the playoffs for the first time since 2015. Its eight wins are the most since 2003. Quarterback Jay McGrath hurts teams with his arm and legs and is part of a defense that has intercepted 16 passes.
The draw: Dwight is a former IEC foe now in the Sangamon Valley. Dwight needed a quality win at Paxton-Buckley-Loda to gain its first playoff berth since 2006. If Lisle wins a playoff opener for the first time since 2003, tough North Boone and 3A's top-ranked Byron, which ousted Lisle in 2015, await.
Advancement: Winner plays the No. 12 Mid-County at No. 5 North Boone winner.