KANKAKEE — Rich Zinanni knew that the emotions he was going to experience Friday night were going to be new to him, no matter what happened.
And as the Fightin’ Irish took an early 7-0 lead, a lead they held all game, the emotions Zinanni felt in his final home regular season game became tears of joy as the Irish upset Class 4A’s fourth-ranked team, St. Francis, 36-15 Friday night, a night of celebratory jubilation that included several players and coaches from Zinanni’s 47-year career.
“It worked out really well — imagine going to do a celebration after a loss, not so fun,” Zinanni said. “I’m happy but I’m more happy for the kids; we didn’t really have an identity, didn’t really know where we were at, but tonight we found it.”
Coach Zinanni taking the home field for the last time in the regular season. pic.twitter.com/TqDduJjZRw— Mason Schweizer (@MSchweizerTDJS) October 9, 2021
The Irish improved to 4-3 on the year with their divisional crossover win in the Metro Suburban Conference over a Spartans team that fell to 5-2 on the year.
“This was huge, first of all for coach Z in his last home game, so it’s great for him and great for us,” said Irish receiver and defensive back Colton Provost, who caught two touchdowns and recorded two interceptions. “We needed to boost our momentum to get into the playoffs, and we’re gonna do it.”
A Spartans three-and-out opened the game, and the Irish didn’t take long to put the first points on the board. After their own three-and-out was negated due to a roughing the punter penalty, the Irish made St. Francis pay for the mistake when Brady Bertrand connected with Provost for a 14-yard touchdown later in the drive.
After yet another three-and-out, the Irish again found the end zone when Tony Phillips dashed free from 52 yards out for a touchdown. And when a bad snap followed on the extra point attempt, Jaxson Roberts was able to find Caden Martin for a successful 2-point conversion to give the Irish a 15-0 lead nine minutes into the game.
“The defense was special, and our offense is dangerous,” Zinanni said of a team that created two three-and-outs that led to two touchdowns to open the game. “We thought we would be like this all year and it just hasn’t worked out, but maybe we’re hitting our stride here.”
And a quick speech from the man himself. Kicking off now in Kankakee. pic.twitter.com/NZQbCQZEra— Mason Schweizer (@MSchweizerTDJS) October 9, 2021
The Spartans struck back on an Adam Criter nine-yard score just three plays later, and after a pair of punts, the Spartans appeared primed to tie the game, driving deep into McNamara territory. But Blake Lawson fumbled trying to stretch the ball across the goal line and Alan Smith recovered in the end zone, setting the Irish up at their own 20-yard line.
Two plays later, the Irish celebrated another score. Phillips quickly picked up 30 yards to put the Irish at midfield, where fellow sophomore Jaydon Wright broke several tackles on his way to a 50-yard touchdown to give McNamara momentum again.
The two teams traded more punts before St. Francis again drove into McNamara territory, but again turned the ball over, when Provost picked off a Alessio Milivojevic pass in the red zone just before halftime.
Provost credited an adjustment the Irish defense made, going from three linebackers to two linebackers and five defensive backs and a nickel package.
“We played purely the pass, running three safeties and two [cornerbacks],” Provost said. “And that made a big difference in this game.”
It didn’t take long for the Irish to pad their lead in the second half, as they recovered a sneaky onside kick attempt at midfield and scored one play later when Phillips ran in untouched from 50 yards out to give the Irish a 29-8 lead just 10 seconds into the third.
Phillips, who ran for 221 of the Irish’s 295 rushing yards, said that after an off week last week with a forfeit victory against Aurora Central Catholic, the Irish were able to spend extra time getting their running game right.
“There were a lot of things we went over,” Phillips said. “Our game last week got canceled, so we had a lot of time to prepare and get better.
“Our line got bette,r and we had to do it for coach Z.”
Provost picked another pass off on the ensuing Spartans drive, and then on a 4th-and-17 from the 26-yard line, hauled in an insane one-handed catch from a scrambling Brady Bertrand to put the contest out of hand at 36-8 with three minutes to play in the third.
“We had one play called where we run slants, and I switched the play and told Colton to run deep because I could lob it up to him easier,” Bertrand said. “The pocket shut down, so I rolled out and threw it to him.”
Bertrand also said that the offense’s ability to cash in on opportune field position thanks to their defense was something they felt like they owed to their teammates.
“That’s kind of been our problemt he whole season; the defense has shut [teams] down all game long for most of our games but we come out and can’t score,” Bertrand said. “We’re starting to figure it out now and definitely excelling.”
The Spartans scored a late touchdown when Milivojevic hit Domenic Beres for a 6-yard score midway threw the fourth, but by the then the reserves were in for an Irish defense that forced three turnovers and recorded six sacks.
“This one really feels good,” Zinanni said. “We were an underdog, no question, and the kids played so well.
“The coaching staff, [co-head coach] Alan Rood and the defensive coaches, did a great job gameplanning this one, and all the sudden we got healthy this week and everything came to fruition.”
Phillips tallied 16 carries for 221 yards and two touchdowns. Wright added 73 yards and a score on 14 carries. Provost caught his two touchdowns on three catches that totaled 74 yards. Roberts ran for 11 yards on two carries and caught two passes for 18 yards. Bertrand completed 7-of-11 passes for 112 yards and his two scores.
AJ Parnell had two sacks. Brogan Bilyard had a sack and an additional two tackles for loss. Martin, Dashjantae Thomas and Mason Scivally each had sacks.
The Irish will look to pull off another upset when they visit Class 3A’s second-ranked Immaculate Conception in an MSC Blue game at 7 p.m. in Elmhurst.
“We can’t go backwards now,” Zinanni said. “We’ve got some things we’ve gotta work on, no doubt, but we know what they are and the kids are pretty fired up to do that.”