Cary-Grove excelling on both sides of the ball
While there is a lot to talk about when it comes to the unbeaten Cary-Grove football team's offense (more on that in a few seconds), the Trojans' defensive exploits have been equally impressive this season.
In seven of the Trojans' nine regular-season games, opponents were held to two touchdowns or less. That tally went to eight in 10 after a 42-8 throttling of Rockford East in the 6A playoff opener. And while the scoreboard shows Grayslake Central and Crystal Lake Central got into the 20s in the second and quarterfinal rounds respectively against Cary-Grove, those games had already deteriorated into blowouts (Cary-Grove scored 97 points combined in the two wins).
That punishing Cary-Grove triple-option offense coupled with an equally up-to-snuff defense has it in the Class 6A state semifinals once again, hosting Lake Forest Saturday at 1 p.m. at Al Bohrer Field with a chance to play for the program's third state championship (2009 and 2018 previous state titles).
"It's all been about consistency," Cary-Grove senior defensive back Ben Hurt-Haller said. "We are consistent in every aspect. We have come together as a team, and at the end of the day we have gone out there and executed on the field."
Hurt-Haller said the motivation for Cary-Grove's defense is simple.
"We have done a good job of doing what we need to do to get that offense back on the field," he explained. "That's the biggest part. They are out there scoring almost every time they are on the field. The more times they get on the field, the more points we can put up."
Hurt-Haller added Cary-Grove's defensive excellence starts up front and works its way back.
"Everything starts at the line. They have been outstanding," he said. "Our linebackers have been great with reads and fills. If we can get the other team out of what they plan to do and then fill in, they don't have anything going on."
Hurt-Haller, who returned a blocked punt for a score in the first quarter against Crystal Lake Central last week, laughed that more times than not, Cary-Grove's defense does not have much time to do much of anything on the sideline.
"We'll sit down and take a look at things and try to correct them and then all of a sudden the offense scores again and we are back out there. They can score so fast," he said.
Colin Desmet leads the defense with 130 tackles and 4 interceptions. Zach Petko has 83 tackles and 2 quarterback sacks, while Connor Anderson has 81 tackles. Hurt-Haller is right behind Desmet with 3 picks.
"Our defense has been really good this year," Cary-Grove senior safety Toby Splitt said. "We trust each other and have a good bond. We are very physical up front and we get to our assignments and execute at a high standard."
Splitt concurs with fellow backfield mate Hurt-Haller on the defense's mission.
"We have high motivation," he said. "We have a lot of motivation to go out there and get another stop so the offense can go out there and put another touchdown on the board."
Cary-Grove stats guru Matt Cozzi noted the team's offensive starters have scored on every drive in the postseason except one. That one outlier was a drive that went to the Grayslake Central 1-yard line with 1:21 to go before the half. The Trojans ran a few plays, but eventually took a knee to get to halftime.
In the win against Crystal Lake Central in the quarterfinals, five of Cary-Grove's six offensive touchdowns in the game were on plays of 10 or more yards with Nick Hissong busting off a 58-yard scoring run in the first quarter and Noah Riley snaring a 28-yard pass from quarterback Jameson Sheehan for a touchdown.
Chewing up yards:
Through 12 games, Cary-Grove has run for 300 or more yards in a game nine times. Hissong leads the way with 1,378 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns. Drew Magel is at 853 yards and 11 touchdowns. Sheehan has 726 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns and has thrown for 806 more yards and 13 more touchdowns. Abrams has 595 yards and 8 touchdowns on the ground.
Riley leads the way on the receiving end with 26 grabs for 529 yards and 8 touchdowns.
FVC getting it done:
The Fox Valley Conference had four teams reach the state quarterfinals this year in Cary-Grove, Jacobs, Crystal Lake Central and Prairie Ridge.
When looking at other McHenry County- and Kane County-adjacent conferences, the only other conference coming close to that total is the Kishwaukee River/Interstate 8 Conference that between its two divisions has two teams in the state semifinals, but only Richmond-Burton (Class 4A, led by former McHenry coach Mike Noll) would be considered local from that group (Sycamore is in the 5A semis).
"I was very happy to see all the teams that made it that far from our conference," Hurt-Haller said. "At first I was surprised because we only play conference games and it's hard to gauge against other teams. It's great seeing our conference getting some love. People can't doubt the FVC."