Glenbard East has lived up to expectations
Glenbard East football coach John Walters wasn't just blowing smoke when discussing the Rams' prospects entering the season.
Looking back to August, he noted the vast starting experience returned on his offensive line with Nick Andrews, Dylan Marin, Connor Peterson and Ben Pham, in support of three-year starters like quarterback Bret Bushka and receiver Jeremy Johnson -- who've teamed up for 19 of Bushka's 26 touchdown passes.
Defensively, Walters stressed the importance of having three-year starting linebackers Jack Baka, Josh Landolina and Anthony Shockey in addition to fellow returning starters, cornerback Nehemiah Jones, safety Dan Hurtado and defensive linemen Andrews and Jesus Lopez.
Paving the way for the future, in the Rams' 40-14 Class 7A playoff-opening win over Prospect, sophomore Ben Wightkin played left offensive guard to allow Andrews fresh legs on defense.
No matter how No. 2 seed Glenbard East (10-0) fares Saturday against No. 15 East St. Louis, their experienced core and many others helped the Rams make history with their first conference championship since 1965 and first 10-0 mark in program history.
Walters suggested this in August: "Obviously, with 13 guys coming back and some newcomers and some juniors that really had great summer camps and start of the season, we're real excited with what we've got and what we can do this season as a football team."
Willowbrook improved to 10-0 for the first time since 1975 and has double-digit wins for only the third time in program history after last week's 35-0 victory over Lincoln Park in the first round of the Class 7A playoffs.
But it wasn't all celebration after the victory.
"We didn't play as well as we wanted," said Warriors coach Nick Hildreth. "I thought we came out a little flat."
The Warriors held a 14-0 lead late in the third quarter until finally gaining some distance with a big fourth quarter.
Part of the reason Willowbrook couldn't break it open was because of the way Lincoln Park dominated time of possession with its ground game. The Warriors, who scored on their first play from scrimmage, had only three first-half possessions.
With a third straight trip to the 7A quarterfinals hanging in the balance against a talented and motivated group from Maine West (9-1), expect Willowbrook to come out with a renewed focus this weekend.
"I'd never question our effort, it was more a matter of execution," Hildreth said. "Every game is different and every game is a challenge. Last week we just got outside of ourselves a little bit. We'll get it back this week."
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Montini entered the season with four quarterbacks competing for the starting job: senior Mark Gabriel, juniors Deontay Bell and Nick Mudd, and sophomore Robert Brazziel.
"That's a big question mark that we had coming in and it was something we had to manage," said Broncos coach Mike Bukovsky. "I think it was a big focus for our coaching staff."
Due partially to injuries to Gabriel and Mudd and by their own play, Bell and Brazziel earned the position early in the season in a dual role. They continue to rotate in by series or even within a series depending on game plan, what a defense allows, and situation.
Entering Saturday's Class 5A second-round game against Sycamore it's been hugely successful for No. 4 seed Montini (9-1). It's succeeded also because Gabriel and Mudd remain key contributors.
Mudd does the punting for Montini, with 26 punts through 10 games. Gabriel plays on special teams and made 10 tackles at linebacker in last week's 42-7 win over Woodstock North.
Bukovsky places Mudd and Gabriel in his "unsung heroes club" with others such as linemen Colin Considine and Demond Butcher and linebacker Aaron Stevenson.
"Guys like that have stepped up, and I think you need that to be a deep playoff team," he said.
After 12 straight playoff appearances -- including two state-title runs -- Glenbard West knows nothing is easy in the postseason.
In terms of second-round games, though, they don't come more difficult than this week's Class 8A game against defending state champion Lincoln-Way East, which comes to Duchon Field on Saturday riding a 24-game winning streak.
"Yeah, it'll be tough," said Hilltoppers coach Chad Hetlet. "You've got to play mistake-free football and go 100 miles an hour."
Glenbard West (8-2) beat the Griffins in two previous playoff meetings, including the 2002 Class 7A final. But this is a different level of challenge for the Hilltoppers.
The depth and talent of Lincoln-Way East is epitomized at the running back spot. Because of the emergence of Jordan Corbett and Devon Williams, A.J. Henning -- one of the state's top juniors -- has been able to shift to wide receiver as another weapon for quarterback Jake Baltz.
It's the biggest test of the season for Glenbard West's defense, but not the only one. Hetlet believes earlier games against Maine South, Hinsdale Central and Oak Park have prepared his team for Saturday's showdown.
"It's not like we haven't played any good teams," Hetlet said. "When we get to the playoffs we're always prepared. It really depends how your kids play on that day."
Warren might have the state's best defense.
But it's not completely unfamiliar to Hinsdale Central.
"It's similar in a lot of ways to Oak Park," said Red Devils coach Dan Hartman. "It's a four-man front compared to a three-man front, but the personnel is similar. Their linebackers are fast and physical and their defensive line is big and strong."
Hinsdale Central (8-2) beat Oak Park 7-0 on an interception return for a touchdown by Andrew Novatney, proving the Red Devils can win a defensive slugfest. But Warren's defense has been unbelievable.
The Blue Devils (9-1) boast five shutouts and have allowed a total of 26 points since a 31-14 Week 1 loss to Barrington.
Led by Zack Pelland and Willis Singleton, Warren's defensive line averages a massive 265 pounds. It's a strength-on-strength matchup with the Red Devils' big offensive line headed by Brendon Passarelli, the West Suburban Silver's offensive lineman of the year, Roy Fuller and Joseph Monahan.
"It helps that we've gone against defenses like Oak Park and Glenbard West," Hartman said. "We know we'll need to be able to handle Warren up front."
St. Francis coach Bob McMillen didn't name team captains. All his seniors have shown that ability.
"Each one leads by example or has different types of leadership skills," McMillen said.
Starting running back Henry Plamondon, linemen Jesse Gonzalez and Dan Skold and defensive backs Clay Gorski, Joe Lang, Sean Marren and Noah Salinas are keys to St. Francis (8-2) improving from consecutive 1-8 seasons to reaching Saturday's Class 5A second-round playoff game at Rockford Boylan as a No. 6 seed.
McMillen noted the contributions of special-teams players Brad Moleterno and Joe Wozniak and part-time receivers and twins Ryan and Tommy Siurek. Injured in Week 4, Shawn Smith still shows up daily. Zach Radel lost his 2017 season to injury but is now one of the team's top receivers.
In the summer a few players tried to recruit a kicker. Senior Aubrey Quaranto came forward. Her parents accepted McMillen's demand that he would treat her no differently than anyone else. Quaranto has converted 29 extra points.
"She's one of the toughest people I know," McMillen said.
Marcus Ingold hadn't played football since the eighth grade. Talked into it by Lang and Plamondon, Ingold "came out in the fall just to give it a shot," McMillen said. A linebacker, Ingold has emerged as St. Francis' second-leading tackler and is getting college looks.
"There's 15 of them," McMillen said of his seniors, "and I can go down the line and tell you what each one has done for this program."
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