The high school football playoff journey begins Friday for 23 local teams.
The Southland has representation in five classes, from 4A to 8A. What everyone wants to know is which team(s) will advance to the respective state championship games in Champaign the weekend of Nov. 23 and 24.
My response? I wish I knew for sure.
I’ve seen every school in our Top 10, some on multiple occasions. The area has some exceptional teams — the records don’t lie. Lincoln-Way East and Crete-Monee racked up undefeated regular seasons. Mount Carmel and Marist finished 8-1. Likewise Richards, Oak Forest and Lemont. Despite two losses, Homewood-Flossmoor can’t be ignored. If Providence can generate some “O,” it might make a run.
However, through my eyes there’s no one team that appears unbeatable, one that I’d regard as a lock or slam dunk to win a state title — much like Lincoln-Way (6A) was in 1997, Mount Carmel (5A) in ’98 and Providence (6A) in 2001 and (5A) ’02.
So what about this year’s Lincoln-Way East team? As good as No. 1 East has been, outscoring opponents 318-79, there’s a good chance an opponent will arrive — possibly Providence in the second round — that has the ability to apply the clamps on the Griffins’ running attack (namely, quarterback Tom Fuessel) and force them to the air. That could spell trouble.
What about Crete-Monee? Yes, the Warriors have resembled a twister, demolishing every opponent in their path to the tune of a 363-56 scoring disparity. But the Southland Conference never will be confused with the Catholic League Blue, or the South Suburban Blue, for that matter. That (again) could come back to haunt the Warriors.
I have similar scheduling concerns with Oak Forest, Lemont and to a lesser extent, Richards.
However, there are no such concerns with Mount Carmel, Marist or Homewood-Flossmoor.
Each is battle-tested, though each has its own issues to overcome:
Will preseason No. 1 Marist’s 2012 offense ever resemble the more explosive one from 2011? If not, the RedHawks’ playoff road might eat them alive. It starts with a very good Lyons squad Friday, followed by potential tilts against H-F, Mount Carmel and maybe undefeated Neuqua Valley or defending 8A champion Bolingbrook — and that’s just to get to the title game. Marist has its work cut out like no other area team.
My concern about Mount Carmel is whether it has the quick-strike ability to rally from a double-digit deficit. That’s a concern that likely won’t be realized until the quarterfinals, at the earliest, or maybe not at all. Yes, the Caravan has weapons in Matt Domer, Draco Smith, Jason Gasser and Don Butkus. But can Mount Carmel produce a scoring drive that relies on passing the rock against a quality opponent in the final minutes?
As talented as H-F is, it’s prone to some youthful mistakes. Can the Vikings eliminate those during the heat of the postseason?
Is Richards legit? The Bulldogs’ conference schedule may not be the most challenging, but they gave an 8-1 Morris squad, regarded as a Class 5A favorite, all it could handle in a 15-13 loss in Week 2. If not for a few costly penalties and mental lapses, Richards would have won that game.
With all that said, it would not surprise me in the least if Lincoln-Way East, Mount Carmel, Marist, Crete-Monee, H-F or Richards advances to the championship game in their respective class. All have the skill level to accomplish a feat that hasn’t been done by a Southland team since St. Rita in 2006.
It’s been a long drought. Oh, we’ve had teams advance to the Big Game — Lemont (6A) in 2007 and ’08, Providence (6A) and Marist (8A) in ’09, Mount Carmel (8A) in ’10 — only to come up short. And that may very well happen again. But I don’t think it will.
I think one of our teams, possibly two, will bring home a state championship trophy.
So who will it be?
Mount Carmel in 8A. The Caravan defense is as good as advertised and the offense has been more diverse than in recent years. In other words, opponents have to respect the Caravan’s passing game.
In 6A, I see an incredible semifinal between Crete-Monee and Richards. I know I’m in the minority, but I see Richards, behind its defense, pulling it out. In the end, though, the Bulldogs will fall to Cary-Grove in the title game.
Let the games begin.