High School Football: State Championship Game Preview

Undefeated, top-ranked Mount Carmel certainly remembers last season’s thrilling win against Batavia in the second round of the Class 7A state playoffs.

There were two controversial pass interference calls and the Caravan ended up winning with an unexpected delay. But Mount Carmel moved. Quarterback Blaney Dowling is a completely different player, stronger and much more dangerous.

The loss lingered in Batavia.

“It was a very emotional game for our program, our community and our kids,” Bulldogs coach Dennis Piron said. “I heard about it almost every week for a whole year. If nothing else, I’ll be glad we’re done talking about it.”

Batavia doesn’t seem obsessed with revenge against Mount Carmel. It’s a state title game, and that’s always a special moment for a community, especially a football-crazy place like Batavia. But a meeting with the Caravan again adds some spice to the game, which is at 4pm on Saturday in Champaign.

Batavia has two Power Five quarterbacks in Tyler Jansey (Wisconsin) and Jack Sadowsky (Iowa State). The Bulldogs offense has improved over the season, but this is a defensive team.

“[Jansey] is like a comic book character,” Piron said. “He’s special, he plays a terrific linebacker and a powerful running back. He took some criticism after last year’s game. It wasn’t always pretty.”

Mount Carmel (13-0) has been extremely tough to come by this season.

“We’re built on our front seven,” Caravan coach Jordan Lynch said. “They’re physical and they fly around.”

Denny Furlong and Alonzo Manning stepped up and helped fill the void after Mount Carmel star Darian Dupree was injured. But the biggest offensive sparks are coming from the passing game now. Dowling was fantastic, throwing for 2,719 yards and 39 touchdowns with just six interceptions.

It’s hard to see Batavia scoring enough points to pull off the upset, but anything can happen in a state championship game.

Class 8A: Lincoln-Way East vs. Loyola, 7 p.m., Saturday

Lincoln-Way East (13-0) is undefeated, but Loyola (12-1) is the favorite. Mount Carmel is the only team that has challenged the Ramblers this season. Loyola defeated undefeated York 30-3 in the semifinals.

Colgate freshman Jake Sterney (2,149 yards passing with 34 touchdowns and three interceptions) is a skilled, efficient quarterback, and the Ramblers continue to find new faces to fill in for injured running backs. Sophomore Luke Foster will likely return for the title game.

Michigan commit Brooks Bahr anchors Loyola’s defense. Senior Johnny McGuire has emerged as a factor in the defensive backfield.

“He played amazing,” Loyola coach John Holecek said. “Every game I’m more amazed at what he can do. He is just a monster, fast and strong. He has an offer from Colgate, but I think he’s more of a Big Ten kid.”

The undefeated Griffins lack star power and college majors, but any doubts about the team were erased in the semifinals when they dominated Glenbard West 31-7.

“There’s no AJ Henning in the group,” Lincoln-Way East coach Rob Zvonar said. “The more ordinary kids get the most out of themselves and enjoy and love playing together as a team.”

Running back James Kwiecinski is averaging 115 yards per game and has scored 26 touchdowns. He’s the workhorse of the offense, but receiver Jimmy Curtin and quarterback Braden Tischer have built a solid relationship all season with 10 touchdown passes.

“[Jake Scianna] is the heart and soul of our defense,” Zvonar said. “He has 200 tackles and I think he’s the best middle linebacker in the state. His two brothers also played for us in state championship games.”

Class 6A: Prairie Ridge vs. East St. Louis 1 p.m., Saturday

Again, it’s a Fox Valley Conference team against East St. Louis. Cary-Grove upset the Flyers last season. This is the sixth straight year that either Cary-Grove or Prairie Ridge has reached the 6A title.

Prairie Ridge (12-1) lost to East St. Louis in 2019 and won the title in 2017, 2016 and 2011.

As usual, the Flyers are the favorites. But East St. Louis coach Darren Sunkett isn’t excited about facing another team that runs the triple option.

“It’s a shame there aren’t a lot of teams going on anymore,” Sunkett said. “We have our work to do. There is no way to simulate what they do in attack. The main thing is to understand their blocking schemes.

Tyler Vesey, the Wolves quarterback, is a major contender for Player of the Year. He rushed for 3,776 yards and 52 touchdowns.

East St. Louis (11-2) has not lost to a team in Illinois. The Flyers are loaded with college prospects and have only been challenged once all season when they beat Lemont 32-29 in the semifinals.

Class 5A: Nazareth vs. Peoria, 10 a.m. Saturday

Nazareth’s road to Champagne was bumpy and at times unlikely.

“When we were 2-4, one of my assistants mentioned something about the playoffs and I burst out laughing,” Roadrunners coach Tim Rackey said.

Nazareth’s young group closed the regular season on a four-game winning streak and didn’t give up in the playoffs. The Roadrunners shut out Boylan, shut out Morgan Park and survived 10-7 against gritty, unbeaten Sycamore.

Racki’s philosophy was to encourage his team and try to stifle any instinct to scream and tear the band down. This is the typical approach of young coaches and seems to be the best way to reach the current generation of players.

“I knew I had a bunch of young guns around me,” Raki said after the win at Morgan Park. “Everybody thought I was going to yell at them after the losses. I kept collecting them. Telling them what they did right and what they did wrong and they responded to that.

Sophomore quarterback Logan Malachuk threw for 2,233 yards with 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He became more of a running threat this season, with five touchdowns on the ground.

Senior Justin Taylor, a rookie out of Wisconsin, is averaging 5.23 yards per carry and has 46 catches. He scored a team-high 11 touchdowns.

Nazareth’s Logan Malachuk (1) rushes for a first down against Morgan Park.

Quinn Harris/For the Sun-Times

Nazareth’s defense is deceptively strong. St. Rita, Lemont and Marist (all powerhouse programs in the larger classes) put points on the Roadrunners, but that was not the case in Class 5A. Nazareth shut out Kankakee early in the season and allowed just three touchdowns in three playoff games.

The defense will get all it can handle Saturday in the Class 5A state title game in Champaign. Peoria (12-1) averaged 55 points in the playoffs and defeated Morris 76-56 in the semifinals.

Running back Malachi Washington has 47 touchdowns and 3,073 rushing yards. Quarterback Tino Gist threw for 2,241 yards with 29 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

Expect penalties in the first match of the day on Saturday.

There are local teams in the final two championship games on Friday. Here’s a look at those matches. We’ll have a preview of the Class 8A, 7A and 6A games tomorrow.

Class 4A: Providence vs. Sacred Heart-Griffin, 7 p.m., Friday

The Celtics (9-4) took the toughest road to the title game. They beat defending state champions Joliet Catholic (the team that beat them in Week 4), Richmond-Burton and St. Francis. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see any of these three teams in Champaign.

First-year coach Tyler Plantz already has a battle-tested squad led by junior running back Kaden Nickell.

“He’s an animal,” Plantz said. “He’s not the biggest kid on the field, but you’ll feel his pads if you’re on the other side of him.”

Sacred-Heart Griffin (13-0) is a powerhouse, averaging 58 points while allowing more than 16 just twice. Longtime coach Ken Leonard, the winningest coach in state history, led SHG to five state championships and four runner-up finishes.

Class 3A: IC Catholic vs. Williamsville, 4 p.m., Friday

IC Catholic is a familiar face in the state finals after winning Class 3A titles in 2016 and 2017 and a Class 4A title in 2018. The Knights’ only loss this season was a one-point loss to Joliet Catholic, and they are the favorites against Williamsville ( 12-1), a school 14 miles north of Springfield.

KJ Parker and Denzell Gibson are dynamic threats on both sides of the ball for IC Catholic. They combined for 37 touchdowns. Parker has 33 receptions for 996 yards and Gibson is averaging 9.6 yards per carry.

“[Gibson] can do anything,” IC Catholic coach Bill Kreft said. “He’s one of the best athletes to come through IC and can jump from running back to receiver.

“We’re getting Parker as many touches as we can. He can be our entire offense, he’s so explosive. He is unselfish and blocks his ass on the rim.

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