Taking a look at possible playoff X-factors for DuPage County teams
It's been a true team effort to help elevate Dennis Mandala's game. But it's paying major dividends for the IC Catholic Prep football team.
The Knights were top ranked in Class 3A most of this season, though they did sustain a tough loss to St. Francis 19-7 last Friday. They are 8-1 overall and won the Metro Suburban Blue with a 5-0 record, all behind Mandala, a sophomore quarterback.
The coaches that have helped Mandala improve have been many. There's ICCP head coach Bill Krefft; his offensive coordinator, Matt Doherty; and quarterbacks coordinator Virge Gerin, who works closely with wide receivers coach Bill Schmidt.
But that's not all. In the off-season, Mandala also works with renowned quarterback coach Greg Holcomb.
That's a mix of personalities and expertise that have turned Mandala into a player who could be a major X-factor for the Knights the IHSA state playoffs. They are sixth seeded in the north bracket in Class 3A and open the playoffs 7:30 p.m. Friday at home against Monmouth-Roseville.
Mandala has been the varsity starter for every single game of his high school career so far. That included last spring's protracted season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That's another facet that made a big difference this fall.
"I honestly felt more relaxed because I played a lot in the spring season, which exposed me to the high school football world," he said.
The key to success for the Knights this season has been choosing not to focus on record and rankings. Instead, "we're focused on our next game and our next practice, so we can win the day," Mandala said.
Playoff X-factors to watch:
If Mandala is ICCP's X-factor, consider that each DuPage County playoff team has their own version of a guy who is going to give that little bit extra to make big plays going forward. In other words, these are the guys to watch.
For example, at No. 3, Neuqua Valley is the county's highest seed in Class 8A. The X-factor for coach Bill Ellinghaus's crew could be senior Palmer Domschke, a Western Michigan recruit, He's a speed demon that plays safety and occasionally running back, but he's also the team's punter and kicker.
"The kid plays all three phases of the game, and when you get in the playoffs, all phases matter," Ellinghaus said. "Having him kick off and kicking field goals, that could be the X-factor for us."
No. 6 seed Naperville North, which beat Neuqua Valley 34-32 last Friday, will look to senior Zeke Williams as its X-factor.
"There are so many things he does," Huskies' coach Sean Drendel said. "He's one of our better receivers, he's our best cover corner and one of our better return guys. We need him to be special."
Naperville North faces Naperville Central in the first round at 7 p.m. Friday. Redhawks' coach Mike Ulreich said while wide receiver senior Reggie Fleurima is the team's best player, senior quarterback Owen Prucha could be the X-factor because of his ability to mix the pass and the run.
Glenbard West coach Chad Hetlet views junior running back Joey Pope as his candidate, while York coach Mike Fitzgerald sees junior running back and slot receiver Kelly Watson in that role because he's "really good in space and adds another dimension to our offense." Hinsdale Central's X-factor could be another slot receiver, Thomas Skokna, who caught the game-winning touchdown in a 6-0 victory over Glenbard West last weekend.
Staying in Class 8A, Glenbard East is the No. 15 seed and coach John Walters thinks his alternating quarterback situation with Dillon Williams and Connor Cerkas will be crucial, Cerkas from the veteran experience standpoint and Williams with his ability to run. Downers Grove South coach Mark Molinari will rely on wide receiver and Northern Illinois recruit Eli Reed against top seed Loyola Academy.
In Class 7A, Willowbrook is the No. 21 seed and senior wide receiver and safety Nick Mabudas could be the team's X-factor, partly because he started at both positions on the team's 2019 state semifinal team. At No. 24 seed Wheaton Warrenville South, Reece Young could be that guy because "he's a great lockdown corner and made a lot of big plays for us at receiver," according to coach Sean Norris. Senior quarterback Mark Forcucci will play a big role for No. 4 seed Wheaton North in 7A.
At 8-1, Glenbard South is the top seed in the north bracket in Class 5A. For coach Ryan Crissey, the X-factor is not one player.
"The entire offensive line will make or break the season for us," he said. "If we lessen our mental mistakes up front, everything else will fall into place."
In Class 4A, Bob McMillan, coach of No. 6 seed St. Francis, has plenty of weapons to leverage in the Spartans' opening rounder against Peoria Notre Dame. But the X-factor could be senior running back Blake Lawson.
"Just his vision and his power and speed is something I haven't seen in his four years here," McMillan said.
No. 8 seed Wheaton Academy, which will host its first home playoff game, will rely on a sophomore as its X-factor player, cornerback and wide receiver Liam White, who had a "supernatural" game, according to coach Jim Johanik, in a 28-14 victory over Aurora Christian to conclude the season last Friday.
And don't forget Lisle running back Tyrese Watson, who will be tough for Chicago Carver to contend with in the first round of the Class 3A playoffs. Lisle is the eighth seed in the north bracket.