POWER RANKINGS: Tightening the margins

Central’s Garrett Graham fends off a Mendon Unity defender Saturday during the Comets’ 62-28 victory in Class 2A playoff competition.

As the playoffs started last week, our area postseason teams stepped out from the comforts of their conferences and set out on journeys to see where they stacked up with the rest of the state.

A six pack of local schools that advanced to the second round seem to be in good standing. Five of those teams won their games by at least two possessions. Kankakee, the lone team to win by single digits, likely would have done the same had some first-half mishaps not occurred.

With Round 2 here, the competition only is going to get stiffer. All six IHSA playoff qualifiers face teams that went 6-3 or better in the regular season, and all of those teams, with the exception of Tolono Unity, Bishop McNamara’s opponent, were playoff teams one year ago.

All of our teams have their fair shots at winning Saturday and beyond. As the margins get tighter and the playoffs lengthen, these rankings also become tighter, and the success our area has had this fall really shines.

1. Coal City (10-0)

The Coalers took just more than a quarter to reach the 49-0 score they eventually defeated Chicago Phoenix Military Academy by last week, and that came with a select number of key players getting some extra time off to recover from the toll nine weeks of football has taken.

The path gets tougher this week against Kewanee, but the Coalers shouldn’t have much issue in another home game. It will be vital to continue to get back to full health, as the Class 4A quarterfinals are shaping up to be arguably the strongest group of teams relative to school size in the entire playoff field.

The Coalers have enough to make their case as the strongest of that elite bunch. Daniel Jezik has had one of, if not the best year for any running back in Illinois, and the same could be said about the defense.

2. Kankakee (9-1)

It had been about two months since the Kays truly were tested, but they were able to take care of Peoria Notre Dame by a wider margin than the 30-23 final score indicated.

The Kays have made it well-known they plan to be the most aggressive and physical team on the field, no matter who lines up on the other side. That attitude, particularly on the defensive end, paired with coach Derek Hart’s scheme that fits his offensive players’ strengths like a glove, make a good combo.

A nearly four-hour bus ride awaits the Kays before they take on Mascoutah on Saturday evening. Defense and the ground game are said to travel extremely well, which hopefully will benefit the run-heavy approach the Kays will bring down south. If it does, they’ll be coming home looking toward a quarterfinal appearance.

3. Central (10-0)

The Comets had the most prolific offense last week, dropping 62 on Mendon Unity. Jay Lemenager was the main culprit, as he was responsible for more than 400 yards of offense and six scores on his own.

This week, it won’t be so easy. Mercer County comes into Clifton with a 6-3 record, but those three losses have come to three teams still in the playoff field with a combined 26-4 record.

The Golden Eagles only have surrendered more than three touchdowns on one occassion, a 28-0 loss at the hands of unbeaten Annawan-Wethersfield and have eclipsed the 40-point plateau in each of their past two games.

It will be a test for the Comets, but one a team with realistic title chances should be able to pass. If Lemenager plays the way he did last week, they’ll pass with relative ease.

4. Wilmington (9-1)

The Wildcats certainly wish they could have had most of the second quarter and the beginning of the third quarter back of last week’s game against Lisle; despite some mid-game inconsistencies, the Wildcats showed for the second time this season they were the better team.

Keaton Hopwood didn’t throw a single pass last week, but that eventually will change in the postseason. It very well could change against Eureka this weekend. If it does, the Hornets might not know what hit him.

Hopwood’s arm is an X-factor for the ‘Cats, but Jake Rodawold and Trey Shaw are the team’s bread and butter, and fullback A.J. Meyers adds another backfield body for opposing defenses to account for. Paired with a hard-nosed defense, the Wildcats and their explosive offense have reason to believe they will be playing past this week.

5. Bishop McNamara (7-3)

Similar to the Wildcats, the Irish certainly had some lull periods in their trip to Paris last week. Four uncharacteristic turnovers and three touchdowns called back by penalty stunted the Irish from a gaudy final score, but the 34-14 margin despite those issues show how much better of a team the Irish were.

Coach Rich Zinanni knows those errors will have to be cleaned up when Tolono Unity comes to town this weekend. The Rockets have ripped off nine in a row since a 21-20 loss to the Class 4A South’s top-seeded Illinois Valley Central Gray Ghosts to open the season and have a tenured coach in Scott Hamilton.

But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again — the Irish probably have the largest chip on their shoulder of any local teams. They reached that state title game one year ago. They have revenge on their minds with whoever wins the north — likely Coal City, Immaculate Conception or St. Francis, the three teams to hand McNamara losses this year.

6. Watseka (7-3)

The Warriors and entire town of Watseka are on cloud nine after winning a playoff game in town since many of the players’ parents were in school. It seems that mid-to-late season funk the Warriors found themselves in has passed.

It’s passed at the right time, as a lengthy road trip to take on an undefeated Knoxville team is arguably the toughest game in the second round of Class 2A. Conner Curry, Drew Wittenborn and the rest of the Watseka offense will have to make more magic after last week’s game saw a handful of big plays, none bigger than Curry’s 99-yard touchdown catch.

The real key will be the Warriors defense, a unit they’ve been able to lean on. The Blue Bullets are big and deep on the offensive line and in the backfield. It’s likely they will throw the ball a handful of times, which means the front seven of the Warriors will have to show it’s as advertised.

7. Milford-Cissna Park (9-0)

The Bearcats bring up the rear by default, as they enjoyed a bye week during the first round of the Illinois 8-Man Football Association playoffs, but make no mistake: This Bearcats offense is pound-for-pound as potent as you’ll find in Illinois. It starts with quarterback Penn Stoller and is continued through a handful of weapons and an experienced group of blockers.

The defense doesn’t get the credit it deserves either. The offense put up more than 500 points in the regular season, so the defense was on the field quite a bit, but they still were able to hold opponents to less than half of what the offense did.

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