Scouting DuPage County semifinal football playoff games
Byron (11-1) at IC Catholic Prep (11-1)
When: Saturday, 3 p.m., Plunkett Athletic Complex, Elmhurst
Seeds: Byron is the No. 6 seed in the top-half of the Class 3A bracket; ICCP is the No. 4 seed.
Previous matchup: Byron 15, IC Catholic Prep 14 (2021 Class 3A state semifinals)
About the Tigers: Both teams are highly familiar with each other, given this is a rematch of last year's 3A semifinal that saw Byron overcome a 14-0 late fourth-quarter deficit and win and then a week later win the 3A state title in DeKalb. "Obviously, both schools go back and watch that film and use it for preparation," Tigers coach Jeff Boyer said. "We ae both different team though, and we pay a lot of attention to this year's film. It is nice that we have some familiarity with the setup and field." Boyer said there are multiple factors that have led Byron back to this point. "The continual improvement through the season and the playoffs," he said. "running the football, discipline and playing good defense." Byron is powered by the likes of senior quarterback-safety Braden Smith, junior running back-safety Ashton Henkel, senior running back-linebacker James Cone and senior offensive-defensive lineman Jake Kann. Byron's rushing attack (4,075 yards in 12 games) has five players who have run for 400 or more yards. Smith has run for 478 yards and 9 touchdowns (9.0 yards per carry). Caden Considine leads the team in rushing with 665 yards and 9 TDs (7.2 yards per carry). Carsen Behn has run for 544 yards and 8 scores (7.6 yards per carry), while Kye Aken is at 543 yards and 6 touchdowns (8.6 yards per carry). Brayden Knoll has run for 417 yards and 6 touchdowns (8.7 yards per carry). The Tigers average 8.2 yards per carry. Byron has attempted just 48 passes all season. Cone leads the defense with 77 tackles, while Smith has 4 interceptions and Henkel has 3 picks.
About the Knights: IC Catholic Prep is ready to welcome the defending state champions to Lewis Stadium (at Plunkett Athletic Complex in Elmhurst). "Byron continues to be one of the best teams in 3A," Knights assistant coach Thomas Gibbons said. "They are a well-coached team. They are a physical team that is going to give us their best. Their run game is stout and their passing game has seen plenty of success with execution from their quarterback. It's another game that will be won or lost at the line of scrimmage. Our guys will be ready to defend our home turf." Gibbons said last year's semifinal is just that, last year's semifinal. "We do not factor in last year's game one bit," he said. "This is another opportunity for us to have another week together on the practice field. The message is not to dwell on the past. We cannot change the outcome. Our message is when it's go time, we execute one play at a time." Gibbons was impressed with ICCP's poise in last week's come-from-behind overtime win over Princeton in the quarters. "I am super-proud of our players in our comeback victory against Princeton," he said. "One message I have echoed all season is that when the going gets tough, look to your brother and tell him, 'I got your back.' We faced plenty of adversity last week, but we fought and clawed our way back by doing our job one play at a time." Typifying that mindset was Nate Omolo. "Nate played a fantastic game," Gibbons said. "He's always dialed in on doing his job. When we were down in that game, Nate was one of the guys who kept saying the next play and the next drive is ours. And his play showed that." Gibbons also praised the work of Mikey Calcagno, who bounces from defensive line to linebacker, "and provides consistency for our defense," he said. "He's a high-energy guy and other players feed off him." Joey Gliatta came up big for the Knights in the backfield against Princeton, rushing for 182 yards on 22 carries (8.3 yards per carry) and scoring 3 touchdowns. Of note on how swiftly effective Gliatta was out of the backfield, is he averaged 8.3 yards per carry against Princeton, but his longest run was only 18 yards. "Joey found himself being the primary ball carrier down the stretch against Princeton and he took over that game," Gibbons said. "And he continued to be dominant on defense." Marcheon Griffin continues to be a cornerstone of the Knights' defensive line. "Marcheon has made some big plays in the playoffs," Gibbons said. Another stud in the leadership department has been Jesse Smith. "Jesse loves this game," Gibbons noted. "His excitement at practice and on game day is contagious. He is a leader for us at linebacker." Quarterback Dennis Mandala has thrown for 2,352 yards and 32 touchdowns against only 4 picks. Denzell Gibson has run for 819 yards and 13 touchdowns, while KJ Parker has 33 catches for 996 yards and 15 touchdowns. He averages 30.2 yards per catch. Mandala and Parker, recently named to the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Class 3A all-state first team, are juniors. The winner gets either 2021 state-finalist Tolono Unity (11-1) or Williamsville (11-1) in the 3A title game in Champaign next weekend.
Providence Catholic (8-4) at St. Francis (11-1)
When: Saturday, 2 p.m.
Seeds: Providence is the No. 13 seed in the top-half of the Class 4A bracket; St. Francis is the No. 3 seed.
About the Celtics: Providence, out of south suburban New Lenox, might have a No. 13 seed next to its name, but that would now have to be labeled a complete joke. The Celtics defeated No. 4 seed Wheaton Academy in the first round (17-3), No. 5 seed Joliet Catholic in the second round (21-14) and No. 1 seed Richmond-Burton in the quarterfinals (31-14). Those teams had a combined 30-3 record when they stepped on the field against Providence. The Celtics play in the Chicago Catholic League/East Suburban Catholic Conference Orange Division. Their regular season losses came to Wheaton North (28-0), Joliet Catholic (49-41, beat JCA in the playoffs), Loyola Academy (34-22) and St. Rita (26-16). Loyola and St. Rita are still alive in the semifinals as well. "St. Francis is a very good team that has a lot of great players," Celtics coach Tyler Plantz said. "They have athletes all over the field. We have to eliminate explosive plays to be successful. We have played together and compete each opportunity we have been provided on offense, defense and special teams."
About the Spartans: St. Francis is in the state semifinals for the third time in program history and first since 2014 (lost to Nazareth Academy). St. Francis won the 2008 state title. "Providence is a well-coached team that is playing as good as anyone right now," Spartans coach Bob McMillen said. "We have to come ready to play." McMillen loved how St. Francis' defense played in last week's quarterfinal win over Rochelle. "I thought our defense played lights out. Except for the first drive and the late TD, they were outstanding. We did a very good job of stopping their running attack all day." Running back Brady Piper has been a difference-maker for the Spartans in the playoffs. In the three wins, he has run 35 times for 213 yards and 5 scores. "Brady is running the ball extremely well for us right now," McMillen said. "This is a kid who does whatever you ask him to do. He is a blue-collar football player who comes in and punches the clock every day." On the other side of the ball, linebacker Danny French has 21 tackles, 4 sacks and 2 tackles for loss in the three playoff games. "Danny is playing all over the field for us right now," McMillen said. "Pound for pound, he's the hardest-hitting kid on the field. He isn't afraid to come up and smack you." Fellow linebacker Rusty Johnston also has been clutch, McMillen noted. "Rusty has really stepped up his game since taking over as the starting linebacker." St. Francis has received a boost from wideout De Shaun Williams since his return from injury. "De Shaun continues to get better and better each week," McMillen said. Williams had 7 catches for a 110 yards in the win over Rochelle in the quarters. Kicker Cam Engesser, McMillen added, has been equally important to the team's playoff success. "Cam has been a huge factor with his kickoffs and punts," he explained. "He has been able to flip the field and make other teams come out deep in their end of the field." Standout two-way lineman TJ McMillen (6-3, 275) was named to the IHSFCA Class 4A all-state first team recently, while teammates Dom Beres (5-10, 200, LB, Jr.) and Alessio Milivojevic (6-2, 200, QB, Jr.) were named to the 4A honorable mention team. The winner of this game gets either Rochester (11-1) or 2021 4A runner-up Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin (12-0) in the 4A title game in Champaign next weekend.
No. 5 Glenbard West (11-1) at No. 1 Lincoln-Way East (12-0)
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
About the Hilltoppers: Glenbard West survived a barnburner of a quarterfinal at Maine South, coming away with a 37-34 win. Julius Ellens ran for 135 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries for the Hilltoppers, who successfully executed two onside kicks to build a 31-21 halftime lead and then held off the Hawks. After initially believed to be a fill-in for injury at the RB position Ellens has entrenched himself in the backfield rotation, getting the lion's share of the carries. Ellens' emergence has allowed Joey Pope to move primarily to the defensive side of the ball, but the speedster still checks in on the offensive side of the ball from time to time. QB Korey Tai is sort of a mirror image of Lincoln-Way East's Braden Tischer in the ability he has to make things happen with a limited number of passing attempts and if that fails being able to tuck the ball away and slash up a defense for big gains. The Hilltoppers are hoping to advance to their first championship game since winning the 2015 Class 7A title.
About the Griffins: Lincoln-Way East continues to be a case study on how good one can be when everyone is in unison. The Griffins aren't flashy, but they absolutely know how to extract the most out of the talent they have and are merciless as exposing opponent's weaknesses. Offensively, Lincoln-Way East seems to be able to plug in whatever type of offensive attack that will net the best results on a given day. With its typically potent rushing attack slowed a bit from its usual exceptional production, Lincoln-Way East switched gears and got most of its success through the air in its quarterfinal win over Warren as QB Braden Tischer threw three touchdown passes including an 80-yard strike to WR Jimmy Curtin. The defensive unit continues to be excellent and was tossing a shutout against Warren until a pair of special teams miscues allowed Warren to net a pair of late touchdowns. The defensive unit has some standouts, notably LB Jake Scianna and DE Caden O'Rourke, but quite possibly the best thing about this defensive unit is its ability to play as one cohesive unit that rarely has anyone out of place. The winner advances to the championship game against the winner of No. 2 York (12-0) and No. 6 Loyola (11-1).
No. 6 Loyola (11-1) at No. 2 York (12-0)
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
About the Ramblers: Loyola is making its 11th semifinal appearance in the last 13 postseasons. The Ramblers are facing an opponent from the West Suburban Silver for the second consecutive week. Loyola scored on its first three drives and quarterback Jake Stearney threw four touchdown passes to lead the Ramblers past Lyons 30-17 last week. Stearney threw for 171 yards and rushed for 38 in the game. Loyola has had to reshape its rushing attack its last two games since junior leading rusher Will Nimesheim was lost for the season with a knee injury. Sophomore Luke Foster led the team with 57 rushing yards on 20 touches last week while 220-pound Johnny McGuire could be one to keep an eye on. Whoever is rushing the ball has the benefit of running behind a massive offensive line. Stearney threw for 26 TDs during the regular season. Declan Forde had 10 of those TDs and caught 31 passes for 650 yards.
About the Dukes: York got a serious gut check in its quarterfinal game with Palatine, but responded with flying colors. Matt Vezza ran for two second-half touchdowns as the Dukes rallied from down 10-7 after three quarters for a 24-10 win. As the playoffs have progressed, York has leaned more on Vezza as a rushing threat. He ran for a 153 yards on a season-high 28 carries against Palatine after carrying the ball 26 times for 142 yards and three TDs against Marist. Jake Melion also rushed for 108 yards and a 41-yard TD against Palatine. The York defense led by Ashton Nawrocki, All-State linebacker Cole Ostendorf and Evan Grazzini held Palatine to its fewest points this season. Now it gets another huge challenge against a Loyola offense that averaged 42.3 points in the regular season and has averaged 40.3 points in three playoff wins. York, in its second semifinal appearance -- first since 2006 -- has never advanced to the state championship game.