History says Downers Grove North is a tougher foe than it seems
There's something about a Downers Grove North football team that enters the playoffs with a 5-4 record.
In 2008 the Trojans upset an eight-win Wheaton Warrenville South team. In 2012 they beat unbeaten top seed Batavia and followed up in 2013 with a win over Young, another top-seeded unbeaten.
Last week No. 27 Downers North (6-4) opened the playoffs with a 35-14 upset victory at No. 6 Maine West (8-2). Trojans coach Joe Horeni doesn't believe the first-round success is a coincidence.
"I think it's the West Suburban Silver," he said. "I don't think you have to look any farther than that."
Downers North won all three of its nonconference games but fell four times in the Silver. Three losses came by a total of 16 points in addition to a learning experience against unbeaten Glenbard West.
The Trojans look to earn their first quarterfinal berth since 2013 in Saturday's second-round Class 7A game at WW South.
"We're battle-tested based on the games we've played," Horeni said. "We were 5-4 coming in, but I think we were a good 5-4."
Glenbard West (10-0), the second seed in Class 8A, is considered one of the top programs in the state.
Still, the Hilltoppers have a victory wish list.
They face playoff royalty Saturday with a trip to defending state champion Loyola (7-3), a three-time title winner that's reached the final in each of the last four years. Glenbard West has faced No. 18 Loyola only once in the playoffs, losing in the 2016 semifinals, but a win this weekend would stand as a milestone for the program.
Through coach Chad Hetlet's 13 seasons at the helm the Hilltoppers have recorded many milestone wins, starting with Hinsdale Central and WW South, and continuing with Mt. Carmel, Lincoln-Way East and others.
Loyola would be a major addition to the list.
"The kids have had opportunities to beat the big-time programs, and this is another opportunity," Hetlet said. "It's a tough road, but we love games like this."
Pick a player:
Neuqua Valley is known for its offensive diversity, but Saturday's 44-6 win over Conant was ridiculous.
The Wildcats (9-1), seeded 11th in Class 8A, opened the playoffs with eight players scoring. That included a safety and a 2-point conversion but, still, that's pretty impressive.
"The strength of this team, and we've said it all along, is that we're very balanced," said Wildcats coach Bill Ellinghaus.
Running the show is quarterback Mark Gronowski, who last week threw for 179 yards and ran for 106. Even with leading receiver Sean Larkin missing the game due to injury, the offensive wealth spread throughout the roster.
Neuqua Valley needs to keep the points coming this week at No. 6 Homewood-Flossmoor (9-1) and its high-powered offense.
"We've got different guys running the ball, different guys catching it," Ellinghaus said. "We need to keep that going."
Assessing the top leaders over his eight seasons, IC Catholic Prep coach Bill Krefft points to two players: former Knights quarterback Luke Ricobene, now a receiver at Dayton; and three-year starting linebacker Kevin Cooke.
"He's the one who leads everybody," Krefft said of Cooke. ICCP's all-time leading tackler is listed with an incredible 467 stops as the Knights (9-1) host Class 4A foe Stillman Valley on Saturday.
The 5-foot-11, 195-pound senior has a 4.6 grade-point average and a 33 ACT score. He brings a constant motor and a physical, nasty streak to the field. It equals instant, precise reads resulting in a team-leading 11 tackles for loss and 5 interceptions.
Cooke is the elder statesman of the linebacker corps, providing game-action training to sophomores such as Jadon Mims and Connor McCoy. Lining them up, calling the defense, critiquing their play, Cooke has their back and is a model for the position.
"Kevin Cooke's lines (to the ball), his techniques, his ability to see the game, it's just very different from any kid I've ever seen," Krefft said.