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High School Football: State Championship Games Preview

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

There were two controversial pass interference calls and the caravan eventually won with an untimed sortie. But Mount Carmel has moved on. Quarterback Blainey Dowling is a completely different player, stronger and a lot more dangerous.

The loss stayed in Batavia.

“It was a very emotional game for our program, our community and our kids,” said Bulldogs coach Dennis Piron. “I heard about it pretty much every week for a whole year. If anything, I’m glad we’re done with it.”

Batavia doesn’t seem obsessed with revenge on Mount Carmel. It’s a state title game and that’s always a special moment for a community, especially for a football-loving place like Batavia. But fighting the Caravan will add some spice to the game, which takes place in Champaign on Saturday at 4:00 p.m.

Batavia has two Power Five-tied linebackers, Tyler Jansey (Wisconsin) and Jack Sadowsky (Iowa State). The Bulldogs’ offense has improved over the season, but they are a defensively led team.

“[Jansey] is like a comic book hero,” said Piron. “He’s special, he plays a scary linebacker and a strong running back. After last year’s game he had to take some criticism. That wasn’t always nice.”

Against Mount Carmel (13-0), he has been extremely difficult to compete against this season.

“We’re built on our Front Seven,” said caravan trainer Jordan Lynch. “They are physical and they fly around.”

Denny Furlong and Alonzo Manning have stepped up and helped fill the void after Mount Carmel-Star running back Darrion Dupree was injured. But the biggest offensive sparks now come from the passing game. Dowling was fantastic, throwing for 2,719 yards and 39 touchdowns with just six interceptions.

It’s hard to imagine Batavia scoring enough points to cause a stir, 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 unbeaten but Loyola (12-1) is the favorite. Mount Carmel is the only team to challenge the Ramblers this season. Loyola defeated York undefeated in the semifinals 30-3.

Colgate recruit Jake Stearney (passing 2,149 yards with 34 touchdowns and three interceptions) is a seasoned, effective quarterback, and the Ramblers are always finding new faces to fill in for injured running backs. Sophomore Luke Foster will likely feature again in the title game.

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

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

The undefeated Griffins lack star power and big college recruits, but all doubts about the team were dispelled in the semifinals as they dominated Glenbard West 31-7.

“There’s no AJ Henning in the group,” said Lincoln-Way East coach Rob Zvonar. “It’s more normal for kids to bring out the best in themselves and enjoy and love playing together as a team.”

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

“[Jake Scianna] is the heart and soul of our defense,” said Zvonar. “He has 200 tackles and is the best middle linebacker in the state in my opinion. His two brothers also played for us at state championships.”

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

Once 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 have reached the 6A title game.

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

As always, the Flyers are favourites. But East St. Louis coach Darren Sunkett isn’t thrilled about facing another team running the treble option.

“It’s an offense that not many teams do anymore,” Sunkett said. “We cut out our work for ourselves. There’s no way to simulate what they’re doing offensively. The main thing is to figure out their lockdown schemes.”

Tyler Vasey, the Wolves’ quarterback, is a key contender for player of the year. He’s rushed for 3,776 yards and 52 touchdowns.

East St. Louis (11-2) has never lost to an Illinois team. The Flyers are packed with college candidates and have only been challenged once all season, beating Lemont 32-29 in the semifinals.

Class 5A: Nazareth vs. Peoria, Saturday 10am

Nazareth’s road to Champaign was bumpy and at times improbable.

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

Nazareth’s fledgling group ended the regular season on a four-game winning streak and didn’t let up in the playoffs either. The Roadrunners defeated Boylan, shut out Morgan Park and survived 10-7 against the sturdy, undefeated Sycamore.

Racki’s philosophy was to encourage his team and try to suppress every instinct to scream and bring the group 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,” Racki said after the win at Morgan Park. “Everyone thought I was yelling at them after the losses. I kept picking them up. Telling them what they did well and what they did wrong, and they acted on it.”

Sophomore quarterback Logan Malachuk has thrown for 2,233 yards with 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He’s become a constant threat this season with five touchdowns on the ground.

Senior Justin Taylor, a Wisconsin recruit, averages 5.23 yards per carry and 46 catches. He has a team-high 11 touchdowns.

Nazareth's Logan Malachuk (1) rushes to the first down against Morgan Park.

Nazareth’s Logan Malachuk (1) rushes to the first down against Morgan Park.

Quinn Harris/For the Sun-Times

Nazareth’s defenses are deceptively strong. St. Rita, Lemont, and Marist (all Powerhouse programs in major classes) scored points in the Roadrunners, but that was not the case in Class 5A. Nazareth shut out Kankakee in the season opener, allowing just three touchdowns in three playoff games.

The defense will get all it can in Saturday’s Class 5A State Title Game in Champaign. Peoria (12-1) is averaging 55 points in the playoffs and beat Morris 76-56 in the semifinals.

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

Expect a penalty shootout in the first game of the day on Saturday.

Local teams will compete in the last two championship games on Friday. Here’s a look at those matchups. We will have a preview of Class 8A, 7A and 6A games tomorrow.

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

The Celtics (9-4) made the toughest road to the title game. They defeated defending champions Joliet Catholic (a team they defeated in Week 4), Richmond-Burton and St. Francis. It wouldn’t have been a surprise to see any of these three teams in Champaign.

First-year coach Tyler Plantz now has a battle-hardened roster led by junior running back Kaden Nickel.

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

Sacred-Heart Griffin (13-0) is a powerhouse, averaging 58 points and only allowing more than 16 twice. Longtime coach Ken Leonard, the most successful coach in state history, has led SHG to five state championships and four second-place finishes.

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

IC Catholic is a familiar face in the State Finals, having won the Class 3A titles in 2016 and 2017 and the Class 4A title in 2018. The Knights’ only loss this season was a one-point loss to Joliet Catholic, and they’re 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 averages 9.6 yards per carry.

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

“We get Parker as many touches as we can. He could be our whole offense, he’s so explosive. He is selfless and blocks his butt on the edge.”

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