During most of the last 29 seasons, Frank Lenti could begin looking ahead toward the playoffs around Week 6 or 7 of the regular season.
By that time, the Caravan already had locked up a playoff spot.
That wasn’t the case this season.
Mount Carmel was 2-4 after Week 6, hanging from the edge of the proverbial playoff cliff.
“We told the guys after we lost to Brother Rice (26-17 in Week 6) that the playoffs don’t start in three weeks, they start right now,” Lenti said. “It’s time to be good or be gone.”
Of course, the Caravan were good the final three weeks, beating Leo, Hales and Loyola in succession to reach 5-4 and qualify for the playoffs.
“We knew we had to get better against Leo and Hales, and that the season would come down to Loyola,” said Lenti, the state’s all-time winningest football coach with 344 victories. “The odds were stacked against us against. Loyola was 7-1 and was playing for a share of the Catholic Blue championship.”
Lo and behold, though, Mount Carmel squeaked out a 10-7 win. I wish I could say I was surprised. But history under Lenti — 28 (extended to 29) consecutive playoff appearances, 16 state title games, 11 state championships — demanded otherwise.
The two-time defending state champions rose to the occasion.
“It’s all about character,” Lenti said. “What we say at Mount Carmel is ‘Building character for a lifetime.’ Prior to the Loyola game, we hadn’t played a consistent 48 minutes since Week 1.”
Between Weeks 1 and 9, the Caravan often played like a team returning just one starter on offense and a handful on defense.
However, with the winds of a three-game winning streak at its back and a sudden boost of confidence, Mount Carmel is a dangerous team in these Class 7A playoffs.
I don’t care if the Caravan are a 14 seed. Throw that number right out the window. It means nothing when you’re referring to not only Mount Carmel, but any team in the Catholic Blue.
“I’ve never paid attention to what seed we were,” Lenti said. “It makes no difference. The idea is to get into the tournament. I just make sure to check that we get in.”
So which team has the fortune — or, more accurate, misfortune, in my eyes — of drawing the Caravan in the first round of the postseason?
None other than Batavia, the defending Class 6A state champion.
Imagine that. The defending Class 6A and 7A state champs matched up in the first round.
I’m not a believer in conspiracy theories, but the IHSA couldn’t have drawn it up any better.
“It depends on which team shows up,” Lenti said, referring to his own team. “We have been very inconsistent. We told the kids after the Loyola game that we’re turning the team over to you guys. ‘How badly do you want to be a success? It’s time we put those life lessons the coaching staff has taught you to good use.’
“It’s a one-game season right now. That’s how we view the playoffs.”
Unless Mount Carmel commits turnovers and numerous penalties, it’s likely going to be a one-game playoff experience for No. 3 Batavia.
Yes, I’m aware the Bulldogs are 8-1. But the Upstate Eight River, with five of its eight teams failing to qualify for the playoffs, should not be confused with the Catholic Blue, where all five teams qualified for the postseason party.
There’s also the public school vs. Catholic Blue playoff factor, which rarely ends well for the public school.
Batavia is one year removed from competing in 6A. Do you really believe Mount Carmel and its vaunted split-back veer offense is going to fall victim here?
If so, you also believed a 2-4 Caravan had no chance at qualifying for the playoffs.