The playoffs are here, and it’s finally time to separate the contenders from the pretenders. The polls, the what-ifs and the rankings (these included) are fun for water cooler talk, but they don’t mean a thing when it comes to what will happen during the next five weekends.
Our area has enjoyed a plethora of success this season, with three 9-0 teams (Coal City, Central and Milford-Cissna Park), two more 8-1 teams (Kankakee and Wilmington) and nine total playoff qualifiers — one more than we saw last season.
Eight of those teams will begin the postseason push this week in the Illinois High School Association, and Milford-Cissna Park will have a bye week as the top seed of the Illinois 8-Man Football Association.
Starting this week, the rankings will focus on just the teams that are left. Once the year ends, all 15 schools will be in the season-ending rankings.
1. Coal City (9-0)
Daniel Jezik’s 1,779 rushing yards lead the area by more than 400 yards, and the Coalers’ ground game might not even be their best asset, as the defense continued where it ended last season, tossing three shutouts and holding three more opponents to a touchdown each.
They enter the postseason as the top overall seed in Class 4A and are the No. 1 team in the AP poll in the class, but the Coalers have anything but an easy path. Once the quarterfinal round begins, there are five different teams the Coalers could wind up facing between then and the semifinals, including defending state champions Immaculate Conception.
Whoever represents the north bracket in the state championship will have already won a couple of title-worthy games. The Coalers have just as good a chance as anyone to be that team.
2. Kankakee (8-1)
The Kays have demolished nearly everyone they have faced this season — their average final score has been a whopping 44-8. Coach Derek Hart has sparked a new energy into the program and given the Kays their best regular season this century.
Tyjuane Stewart neared 1,000 yards through the air, and Mattias Clark was just shy of 700 rushing yards. The depth at receiver is ridiculous, and the offensive line’s improvement as the year has gone on probably has been the biggest positional development in the area.
But it’s that defense that has everyone talking. The Kays allowed a combined 13 points during their final five games, thanks to a cornucopia of speed, toughness, athleticism and size — quite a fearsome combination.
With not much competition on the schedule, questions of if the Kays are for real can be considered legitimate. Those questions will be answered as the Kays prepare to navigate a competitive southern half of the Class 5A bracket.
3. Central (9-0)
The Comets have had the goal of reaching Dekalb since last season ended, and after a perfect regular season, they are well on their way. Jay Lemenager eclipsed 1,600 yards in the air and about 600 more yards on the ground to lead an offense overloaded with playmakers and an experienced group of blockers.
That offense, paired with a defense that slowly but surely got back to the standard coach Brian Spooner and defensive coordinator Matt Sertich have created, have allowed the Comets to bounce between the top few spots in the Class 2A poll, including a No. 1 ranking as the playoffs begin.
A 5-4 Unity-Seymour team awaits in Round 1, and the Comets have to get past all the speed bumps on their way to a title game, but none of those bumps, save for a potential quarterfinal matchup with second-ranked Fieldcrest, should deliver too big of a blow to their grandiose aspirations.
4. Wilmington (8-1)
Although Peotone was without its leading rusher last week in Ben Balmer, the Wildcats still have to earn some high praise for shutting out the Blue Devils last week. While there were time-to-time lapses earlier in the season — never for more than a possession or two — there haven’t been many of those lately for the defense, which sneakily has entered the top 3 in the area in terms of scoring (13 points).
Jake Rodawold finished tied for the touchdown title in the regular season with 23, and his 1,345 rushing yards were second to only Jezik in the area. He’s the premier face of coach Jeff Reents’ double-wing offense, but Trey Shaw is more than just a compliment, and quarterback Keaton Hopwood is waiting patiently until he’s able to show off his arm for an extended period of time.
It’s been five years since the ‘Cats went undefeated on their way to a Class 3A championship, and that hardware is what they’re after again this year. They enter the postseason tied for second in the AP poll, but with the pedigree Reents and past Wildcat teams bring, it’s hard to not consider them the favorite to win another championship this year.
5. Bishop McNamara (6-3)
The Irish are peaking at the right time, as their 41-14 dismantling of Elmwood Park last week gave coach Rich Zinanni and company a four-game winning streak to end the season, as well as the area’s second-highest scoring offense out of 11-Man teams (40 points per game).
Owen Jackson tied Rodawold for the touchdown crown, and he and Manny Harris are quite possibly the best tandem of offensive weapons any area squad boasts. Not to mention, Tyler Hiller is a three-year starter at quarterback and already has been the signal-caller in a state title game.
The north side of Class 4A is loaded, and the Irish find themselves as arguably the favorite to come out of the south. They made the same march to the championship last year, except there is no Rochester to top this season, as the Rockets are in the Class 5A field.
There’s a reasonable chance the Irish would see one of their three losses in the championship — Coal City, Immaculate Conception or St. Francis. How lucky would we be to see a Coalers-Irish rematch in Dekalb?
6. Milford-Cissna Park (9-0)
I will keep things brief with the Bearcats this week because they have the week off, but Penn Stoller might have had the best season in the area. The senior quarterback threw for about 1,300 yards, ran for about 1,200 more and scored 19 touchdowns. That’s not including the 23 he threw.
The Bearcats are a humongous favorite to repeat as I8FA champs. They’ll take a week off and see where the field stands after the first week of action.
7. Mantneo (5-4)
The Panthers needed a win last week against Herscher to get into the Class 4A field, and that’s exactly what they got with a 46-7 win against the Tigers. Now that they’re there, the Panthers add another team to a loaded side of the bracket.
There aren’t many 5-4 teams that opponents want to see less than the Panthers, who have won four out of their last five games, holding opponents to a touchdown apiece in the four victories. That comes after allowing at least four scores in each of their first four games.
Coach R.J. Haines is an offensive genius, and he has his Panthers playing some balanced football right now, although the passing attack reigns supreme. Caleb Borkenhagen has done his thing, leading the area with 1,974 passing yards, with 712 of those going to the area’s leading receiver, Luke Trepanier.
A two-hour drive to Marengo awaits, and the reward for winning is taking on a semifinalist from last season, Richmond-Burton. But if a team can make a Cinderella run this year, the Panthers could be that team.
8. Peotone (6-3)
The Blue Devils are limping into the postseason, but the bright side is they will have the home-field advantage against a prestigious program in Hall.
Ben Balmer finished the regular season as a Top-10 runner with 781 yards, despite missing the final third of the regular season. If he’s back and ready to lead the ground attack, the Blue Devils have a favorable draw that could see them make quite a run.
He’s been missed defensively as well, although Logan Heflin has done even more than usual in his fellow linebacker’s absence. Defense is what coach Apostolos Tsiamas hangs his hat on, and that unit will have to be ready to bring it all if the Blue Devils want a shot at a deep run.
9. Watseka (6-3)
The Warriors were able to break a dry spell with a blowout win against Iroquois West to end the season. Not only did that restore some confidence in Watseka, but it also put a first-round home game on the Warriors’ schedule, as they will host Tremont.
Drew Wittenborn threw for 1,800 yards and has a great supporting cast of receivers. Jameson Cluver leads a ground game that has gotten going as of late and will need to continue that improvement in November.
Defensively, the Warriors have been pretty steady, even during that three-game skid. As old school as it sounds, if the defense maintains their standard of play and the offense continues to find the groove they were in early, the Warriors will find themselves playing for a few more weeks.