Scouting DuPage County playoff quarterfinal games

  • Wheaton North's Tyler O' Connor picks up some yardage in their Class 7A playoff win over Hoffman Estates last week. The Falcons travel to Willowbrook on Friday.

      Wheaton North's Tyler O' Connor picks up some yardage in their Class 7A playoff win over Hoffman Estates last week. The Falcons travel to Willowbrook on Friday. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

By Bobby Narang
Daily Herald Correspondent
Updated 11/13/2021 7:37 AM

Wheaton North (10-1) at Willowbrook (8-3)Class 7A

When: Friday, 8 p.m.


Last weekend: Wheaton North 38, Hoffman Estates 8; Willowbrook 30, Moline 26.

Outlook: Last weekend, Willowbrook spoiled Moline's historic season. The Maroons were minutes away from recording their first 10-win season since 1906. Willowbrook outscored the Maroons 13-0 in the fourth quarter to pull out an improbable victory, advancing to the quarterfinals for the fifth straight season.

Up next is another team on a memorable run in Wheaton North. The Falcons placed second in the DuKane Conference and have won eight games in a row since dropping a 23-20 decision to Batavia in Week 3. Wheaton North coach Joe Wardynski admitted he's fully aware of Willowbrook's recent playoff success. He noted that the Warriors won't be rattled by a deficit or adversity on Friday.

"Willowbrook has definitely been one of the most successful programs in the state of Illinois over the last several years," he said. "This game on Friday will be something that they're accustomed to. Willowbrook's players and coaches are used to big games in November. They do a great job of mixing the run and pass offensively to keep defenses off balance. Just as we did, they lost one of their outstanding running backs to injury but other guys have stepped up and carried the load."

Wardynski said putting pressure on Willowbrook sophomore quarterback AJ Palicki is one of the keys to the game.

"I'm very impressed with their sophomore quarterback," he said. "He does a good job taking care of the football but he's not afraid to test defenses over the top. Their defense appears to run to the ball very well with a lot of good athletes. I've heard from numerous coaches that Willowbrook plays a very physical brand of football.

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"As is the case in many of these playoff games when the teams are evenly matched, factors other than offense and defense end up playing a huge role in the outcome. Penalties, turnovers and special teams play may end up being the difference on Friday night. Our kids are excited to still be playing and look forward to the challenge coming their way on Friday night."

Wardynski said senior quarterback Mark Forcucci and junior linebacker Ross Dansdill, both captains, are players his team relies on during tough moments.

"Our kids feed off their positive play and look to them for leadership during the difficult times in games," he said. "We'll need these guys to play well again this week if we're going to advance to next weekend."

Princeton (10-1) at IC Catholic Prep (10-1)Class 3A

When: Saturday, 3 p.m.

Last weekend: Princeton 40, Prairie Central 0; IC Catholic 35, Pecatonica 12


Outlook: IC Catholic coach Bill Krefft and his coaching staff are no strangers to big games. After winning three straight state championships -- two in Class 3A and a 4A title in 2018 -- the Knights are three wins away from another title. Princeton is the latest team in the Knights' path to a fourth state championship since 2016. The Tigers lean on a big-play offense to overpower teams, evidenced by their 87 points in the first two rounds of the playoffs. In 11 games, Princeton junior quarterback Teegan Davis, a dual-threat, has passed for 1,694 yards and 19 touchdowns and leads his team with 1,052 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns.

"They run a spread offense and are really explosive," Krefft said of Princeton. "They have crazy success on offense. They have talent across the board. Their quarterback can take over a game. They're big and physical upfront, just an explosive football team. We have to make the tackle in space. That's a big part of it. A lot of their offense goes through their quarterback. We have to make sure to contain him. We have to make sure everyone on defense is doing their jobs, not trying to do too much. They have a lot of high energy plays that change the momentum of games."

The Tigers don't just beat teams with their offense, as they've limited teams to 14 points in two playoff games.

"Defensively, they do a lot of pressure and different things," Krefft said. "We have to make sure we can handle it. They do a lot of movement. We have to polish a few things up."

Krefft said his offensive line -- center Declan Kenneally, guards Fernando Rodriguez and Jadon Mills and tackles Nathan Omolo and Isaiah Gonzalez -- are playing at a high level, in particular helping to protect sophomore quarterback Dennis Mandala.

"The offensive line is doing a great job," he said. "They've been getting off the ball and doing a nice job at the line of scrimmage. We have to do a lot of things right to have a good pass protection this week against Princeton's defense."

Krefft said senior outside linebacker Brendan Bigane, a three-year starter and a captain, has been a key factor in the Knights' strong play since joining the varsity in his sophomore season. Bigane is a player to watch in Saturday's game against Princeton's prolific offense. Bigane intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown in IC Catholic's first-round playoff win over Monmouth-Roseville.

"Brendan makes a lot of plays," Krefft said. "He's a good kid, a hockey player. He's really taken over the role of outside linebacker for us since his sophomore year and not given it up. He does a lot of our check-ins. He's a smart football player and is explosive. He's a football player who play little on offense and special teams."

Lockport (10-1) at Glenbard North (8-3)Class 8A

When: Saturday, 1 p.m.

Last weekend: Lockport 34, Glenbard West 0; Glenbard North 10, Warren 7

Outlook: Glenbard North goes in search of another signature playoff victory at home on Saturday. After defeating 2019 Class 8A runner-up Warren in a hard-fought and physical game last Saturday, the Panthers' defense faces another stiff challenge against the Porters. In the second round, the Panthers overcame an 18-minute delay in the first quarter when the lights unexpectedly shut off, then managed to hold Warren senior running back Maurice Edwards, a Vanderbilt recruit, to 63 yards. Throughout the season, Glenbard North's defense has stepped up to stop high-profile units. Lockport crushed Glenbard West last weekend to notch its seventh game of scoring at least 34 points. Quarterback Hayden Timosciek threw for three touchdowns, highlighted by a 71-yarder to Ryan Little against the Hilltoppers.

"Rich Smelko does an excellent job with the defense, from having them prepped on their assignments and in positions to make plays," Glenbard North coach Ryan Wilkens said. "We also have quality kids at all three levels. We can pressure with our front four which allows us to keep players in coverage. Our players react and run to the football with a purpose.

"But Lockport can hurt you in the air and on the ground. They have two great running backs and four quality receivers along with a giant tight end. Their quarterback makes all the throws and is even better at decision making. He's athletic enough to extend plays and also be a possible run threat. Lockport's offensive line gets off the ball and can run. We're going to have to stop the run first and try and get pressure on the quarterback and keep him from escaping to extend plays."

Glenbard North quarterback Justin Bland had a steady performance against Warren's stout defense last week. Bland played within himself and showed a penchant to make big plays and elude pressure and not make mistakes.

"The past two weeks Justin has been on," Wilkens said. "His ball placement, timing and decision making has been at his best under the most pressure that he has seen thus far. Justin has great vision, works the pocket and is also difficult to bring down."

Maine South (10-1) at Neuqua Valley (10-1)Class 8A

When: Saturday, 5 p.m.

Last weekend: Neuqua Valley 31, Palatine 8; Maine South 21, Plainfield North 18

Outlook: Neuqua Valley's quest to win its first state title in program history faces a team with a deep tradition in the state of Illinois. Maine South, which has won six state championships, is annually one of the top teams in Class 8A. Under current coach David Inserra, the Hawks captured state titles in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2016 to go with runner-up finishes in 2003, 2004 and 2005.

The Hawks are battle-tested and aiming to return to the state title game. The Wildcats are one win away from equaling their semifinal run in 2012, when they lost to Mt. Carmel.

Neuqua Valley coach Bill Ellinghaus said the Hawks are a deep team with talent across the board.

"Maine South has a nice balance of run and pass to go along with a strong defense," he said. "We need to play well in all three phases of the game and create turnovers. We need to focus on doing all the little things right which hopefully turn into big plays. Their defensive line gets off the ball very well. Our offensive and defensive line need to play well."

The Wildcats picked up some good news late in the regular season with the return of the big-play running of Jaden McGee. The junior running back injured his ankle in a Week 4 win over Naperville North but slowly been hampered by the injury before a breakout performance against DeKalb in Week 8. McGee ran for 111 yards in last week's playoff win over Palatine.

Maine South running back Mike Sajenko is key player for Neuqua Valley's defense to stop on Saturday. Sajenko had 31 carries for 186 yards last weekend.

"We have to slow down a player like Sajenko with a great team defense," Ellinghaus said. "Sajenko is a good player that you can't stop with just one guy. It will take great team defense to slow down a back like him."

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