WILMINGTON — Rich Zinanni’s hall-of-fame coaching career is over after 47 seasons, 38 playoff appearances, nine state championship appearances and five state titles.

As fate would have it, he and his Bishop McNamara squad were ousted by the coach who is now the area’s active postseason leader with Zinanni’s retirement.

Behind 252 rushing yards and four touchdowns from Colin James and a stingy defense that had the Fightin’ Irish offense out of sorts for most of the night, Wilmington and coach Jeff Reents — in he and the Wildcats’ 25th straight playoff appearance — wore down McNamara for a 45-25 victory in Saturday night’s IHSA Class 2A quarterfinal game in Wilmington to improve to 12-0 on the year and advance to next weekend’s semifinal round.

“I knew it was going to end,” Zinanni said. “And to lose to a great program like Wilmington, I’m OK with it.”

The Wildcats’ and their signature double-wing offense, which is designed to eat up clock 4 and 5 yards at a time, continued its rapid postseason pace, reaching the 40-point mark for the third straight game in the playoffs.

As James, the primary benefactor of the unit that’s clicking on all cylinders, basked in the glory of the immediate moments after the Wildcats’ historic victory in the first-ever meeting of the area stalwarts, he realized why he and his teammates have devoted the past several months of their lives to the sport of football.

“It was incredible; this is the best feeling ever,” James said. “This is why we play football — for moments like this.

“I’ve never felt better.”

It was the Irish who drew first blood, as Tony Phillips took the first play of the second McNamara drive 94 yards untouched to tilt the scoreboard in favor of the Irish 7-0 seven minutes into the first quarter.

The home team answered right back, moving 36 yards in seven plays before hitting their first big play of the night, a 32-yard Jacob Friddle touchdown that tied things at 7 with 1:12 on the first-quarter clock.

The Irish quickly punted back to Wilmington just three plays later, and on the ensuing drive, the Wildcats took a lead they would hold the rest of the way, when James found a crack in the McNamara defense and dashed 63 yards to put the ‘Cats up 14-7 early in the second quarter.

“It’s the [offensive] line,” James said of who has been responsible for the Wildcats’ offensive surge as the season has gone on, including Saturday night. “They’re opening holes that are massive, and all we have to do [is] run through them.”

Brady Bertrand found Phillips for a 36-yard touchdown pass in response, which then was countered by a 46-yard Allan Richards field goal for the Wildcats.

The Irish appeared poised to take the lead when Bertrand found Phillips inside the Wilmington 15-yard line just before the half, but Phillips fumbled as he was being tackled, with James recovering to give Wilmington a 17-13 lead at the break.

“We knew it was going to be a hard-fought battle all the way to the end,” James said. “It was 17-13 at half, and we knew it was going to take a lot in the second half and that we needed to turn it up in order to get the outcome we wanted.

“We had a hard week of practice, and the coaches prepared us for it, and I think that’s the main reason we did what we did.”

What the Wildcats did in the second half was will the Irish into submission. Friddle plundered in from a yard out before Richards picked off a Bertrand pass, which paved the way for James to cash in from 28 yards out to take a 17-13 lead at the half and turn it into a 31-13 contest with 1:25 on the third-quarter clock.

“We went to a lot more coverage stuff; [Bertrand] was doing a great job getting rid of the ball, and their receivers are outstanding ...” Reents said. “We were able to get some turnovers, which we were fortunate with, and ran the ball well.

“We kept their offense off the field, put them in second- and third-and-long situations, but overall I thought our kids did a great job.”

The Irish got some fireworks when Bertrand connected with Jaxson Roberts for a 60-yard score as the final buzzer sounded on the third quarter, but the Irish never were able to cut their deficit to any closer than the 31-19 score that came after that touchdown, as a pair of 5-yard James touchdowns in the fourth quarter precluded a late 4-yard touchdown by Jaydon Wright.

Against a Wilmington team that only committed two 5-yard infractions and converted on several third downs, including three conversions of 7 or more yards on runs from fullback Karsen Hansen, Zinanni noted how frustrating it can be to fall behind to a team as well-oiled as the Wildcats.

“They have as good of coaches as there are; their kids are tough kids, and they just don’t make mistakes,” Zinanni said. “You [have to] win the game; they’re not going to give it to you.”

For Reents and the Wildcats, who are back in the semifinals for the first time since winning the 2014 IHSA Class 3A state title, securing those victories late in games is what Wilmington football is all about.

“We believe in it, the kids believe in it, the community believes in it; what you see is what you get,” Reents said of the Wildcats’ physical style. “The kids do it from [youth football] coming through, and right now, it’s working well.

“We always run this offense, but this year, it seems to click a little more.”

Before Reents went back to the locker room to celebrate their semifinal berth, he first shared some parting words with Zinanni, a personal friend who saw his coaching career end with McNamara’s loss.

“Rich Zinanni, and what he’s done for football, not just at Bishop Mac but the state, is obviously something he’ll be remembered for forever,” Reents said. “I had some great words with him at the end and wish him nothing but the best.

“That’s a great coach leaving our game today, and I wish him nothing but happiness.”

Zinanni’s coaching career ends with 371 wins, third-most in state history. He and the Irish ended the season with a 7-5 record just two weeks short of their goal of playing in a state title game at the same Northern Illinois University Zinanni himself played at after his own prep career at McNamara ended when he graduated in 1965.

He will leave the program in the hands of Alan Rood, who served as co-head coach with Zinanni this season, and similar to Zinanni, also played at McNamara and Northern Illinois.

“We would have hoped it was a championship thing, but this is a great group of kids,” Zinanni said. “I loved these seniors, and we have a great group of younger kids coming up.”

STAT BOOK

James ran wild for 252 yards and four scores on 29 carries and recovered a fumble. Friddle scored twice and ran for 125 yards on 23 carries. Hansen added 48 yards on seven carries. Richards had an interception and drilled a 46-yard field goal.

Phillips had 112 rushing yards and a touchdown on nine carries and 82 yards and a touchdown on three catches for McNamara. Roberts was the team’s leading receiver with seven catches for 174 yards and a score. Colton Provost had four grabs for 51 yards. Bertrand went 15-for-29 passing for 329 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.

UP NEXT

The Wildcats will host Tri-Valley in the semifinals at a time to be determined.

Mason Schweizer is an award-winning reporter who has been with the Daily Journal since 2017 and sports editor since 2019. Save for time at the University of Illinois and Wayne State College, Mason is a lifelong area resident.