JOLIET – Joliet Catholic overcame the loss of senior quarterback Cade Earl to defeat Wheaton North, 34-14, Friday night in a game the late Gordie Gillespie would have loved.
The Hilltoppers (2-0) rushed for 361 yards, including 240 by wingback Michael Johnson, as they downed a Falcons’ team that stayed close into the third quarter before an interception by defensive back Bill Rotnicki took away Wheaton North’s momentum.
“We had a good rush on their quarterback and he threw a bad ball. He underthrew it,” Rotnicki said of the interception that stopped a Wheaton North drive with the Falcons (0-2) trailing, 20-14, midway through the third quarter.
The Hilltoppers lost Earl to what coach Dan Sharp described as an upper-body injury early in the second quarter. Junior backup Patrick Roth led JCA to 20 points while completing 5 of 9 passes for 75 yards.
“We sent Cade to get some X-rays at the hospital, and we’re praying that it is nothing serious,” Sharp said.
Earl directed two scoring drives that put the Hilltoppers ahead 14-0 after the first quarter. He finished 3 of 3 for 33 yards. JCA drove 94 yards in its second possession fueled by a 43-yard run by Johnson. Earl finished the drive by hitting senior tight end Jake Kinsella with a 13-yard scoring pass that, with the extra point by Zach Lukasik, made it 7-0.
Rotnicki intercepted his first pass of the game to stop the Falcons’ next drive and returned it 20 yards to the Wheaton North 20. Six plays later, Earl hit Johnson with a five-yard touchdown pass to make it 14-0.
The Hilltoppers scored on their next possession with Roth relieving the injured Earl in the middle of the drive. Roth completed a 10-yard pass to Johnson to the Falcons’ 22 to keep the drive alive. Johnson ran it in from there on the next play. The extra point attempt failed, so JCA led, 20-0.
Wheaton North quarterback Luke Anthony (13 of 32, 150 yards, two touchdowns) found Marcus Gustaveson with a 22-yard scoring strike to cut the lead to 20-7 at halftime. The Falcons cut it to 20-14 on the opening drive of the third quarter when Anthony hit tight end Michael Gehl on a 23-yard TD pass.
After forcing Joliet Catholic to punt, the Falcons took over at their 9. Two plays later, Rotnicki intercepted Anthony. The Hilltoppers scored five plays later on Johnson’s 1-yard run to make it 27-14. Harold Davis (13 carries, 71 yards) finished the scoring with a 1-yard-run with 7:15 remaining.
JCA honored Gillespie, the late coach who guided the program to five state titles, by observing a moment of silence before the game and showing a video montage of Gillespie through the years.
“Gordie’s still with us. I can still hear him saying ‘It’s all there, Danny. See clearly, you can see it,’ ” Sharp said of his longtime mentor and friend.
“He would like this team because of their grit. When things started going bad, when we shot ourselves in the foot with all the penalties (12 for 100 yards), the kids never got down. They never panicked. They just play hard every down.”
Sharp also was pleased with Roth’s play.
“Pat Roth is an outstanding quarterback,” he said. “He did an excellent job. The nice thing is there is not much dropoff. He’s another very intelligent guy. He’s got a slighter frame than Cade, and he doesn’t have the experience, but he has the savvy and leadership qualities and intelligence to run the offense.”