IC Catholic Prep avenges loss to Byron, headed to 3A state title game
Joey Gliatta did not play for IC Catholic Prep last year in the playoffs, but he was with the team on the sidelines. He knew the pain they felt after a one-point loss to Byron.
"I just knew they were hurt," Gliatta said. "I know how they felt. It's not a good feeling. And I didn't want them to feel that way again."
Gliatta is making sure of it -- and becoming quite the playoff story.
The Knights' junior had a breakout performance as a running back in his team's overtime quarterfinal win at Princeton last week. Gliatta followed it up with an encore sensational performance Saturday, rushing for 192 yards and four touchdowns on 22 carries.
IC Catholic's defense did its part, turning away Byron on fourth down on four occasions as the Knights avenged last year's semifinal loss with a resounding 35-0 win in the Class 3A semifinal at Plunkett Park.
"I just told my O-line if they blocked for me, we're going to go places," Gliatta said. "And here we are, going to Champaign."
Indeed, IC Catholic (12-1) is headed back to the state finals for the first time since winning three straight state titles from 2016-2018. The Knights will play Williamsville, a 12-7 winner over Tolono Unity, in the Class 3A championship game at 4 p.m. Friday in Champaign.
And they're riding the unlikely offensive heroics of the young man who kept getting serenaded with chants of "Joey Football" on the Knights' sidelines Saturday.
Gliatta, IC Catholic's second-leading tackler, had just six carries total in the Knights' first 11 games. Good luck believing that watching Saturday's game.
He broke off a 44-yard run on the game's first play of scrimmage to set up his 10-yard TD. Gliatta's 7-yard TD in the final seconds of the second quarter gave his team a 14-0 halftime lead and he added TD runs of 4 and 58 yards in the fourth quarter.
Gliatta's slashing, patient cutback ability hardly looks like a kid who had a handful of carries until lately. He also had nine tackles defensively to boot Saturday.
"The way that our kids rotate in, there really is not a starting kid. We kind of go with who's been hot and he's been hot," Knights coach Bill Krefft said. "He's a very different running back. He finds alleys well and he's able to be patient. When you're patient as a running back holes tend to open up for you."
Saturday's game, though, swung with IC Catholic's defense.
Byron (11-2), true to its identity, methodically marched down the field on its second drive, trailing 7-0. The Tigers, draining the play clock on every snap, held the ball for nearly 16 minutes bridging the first and second quarters, picking up eight first downs on a 22-play drive.
On the 22nd play, though, fourth-and-goal from the 3, IC Catholic linebacker Jesse Smith intercepted a play-action pass into the end zone from Byron QB Braden Smith with 2:23 left in the half.
"We just had to take it play by play on that drive, don't let down, stay focused," said Jesse Smith, who also had 20 tackles in the game. "I was just playing football [on that interception]. It feels great."
It didn't feel so great to Braden Smith and Byron, who never really recovered. The pass was the first and only pass of the 22-play possession.
"Obviously, that was the game plan, we were trying to hold the ball as long as we can, not give [IC] the ball. If we woulda scored that woulda been huge for us," Braden Smith said. "Somebody might not have been open on the naked eye, but Jacob Ross was open in the back of the end zone. That's on me. I shouldn't have thrown it to the middle linebacker, shoulda dropped it over him."
IC Catholic, leading 14-0 at half -- the same score as last year at the same juncture -- made certain history did not repeat itself.
Dennis Mandala connected with Eric Karner on a 66-yard TD pass on the Knights' first possession of the third quarter to make it 21-0. The defense did the rest, stuffing Byron fourth-and-short runs three times in shutting out the defending Class 3A champs while Gliatta ran wild.
"Our kids executed for four quarters and you can't ask for more out of a grown group of men," Krefft said. "They're resilient, they're fighters. They deserved to win that game. That's a great football team they were able to do that to."