ARLINGTON HEIGHTS – Joliet Catholic running back Michael Johnson led his team to a quick start Friday against St. Viator on a night when the weather threatened to be as formidable an opponent as the Lions, whom the Hilltoppers beat, 48-0.
“It was very important to get the lead. We had to play earlier, so we had to suck it up and get it done,” Johnson said.
JCA coach Dan Sharp agreed.
“As soon as we came out, I said if we win the toss, we’re going to take the ball, never knowing when the weather was going to hit,” he said. “We decided to throw early, and we had some success. It loosened things up, and we were able to score on some big plays.”
The East Suburban Catholic Conference game started at 5 p.m. instead of 7:30, and the Hilltoppers (4-0, 2-0) ended it by the completion of the first quarter, rolling out to a 27-0 lead over St. Viator (1-3, 0-2).
Johnson, who rushed for 213 yards on 11 carries in the first half, scored on runs of 5 and 82 yards. He also caught touchdown passes from senior quarterback Cade Earl of 44 yards and 66 yards.
“They were reading run early, so we threw it over the top of their defense,” Johnson said of his touchdown receptions. “I came in motion, and their corners sat there watching me pass them by. It was too late by then.”
The Hilltoppers scored 21 points in the second quarter thanks to touchdown runs by Ke’von Johnson of 1 and 5 yards. Michael Johnson added a 5-yard touchdown run in the quarter.
Ke’von Johnson started in place of injured running back Harry Davis, who fractured his right ankle last week against Carmel. Sharp said Davis may return by the start of the playoffs. Johnson rushed for 77 yards on 11 carries.
“He played well,” Michael Johnson said of Ke’von Johnson. “As a young guy, he stepped up really well for us. He was very motivated to play. I told him he had to go out there and hit them in the mouth first, and he went out and did that.”
JCA gained 460 yards of offense in the first half. Earl threw for 133 yards and two touchdowns.
“Everyone on offense gave a tremendous effort,” Sharp said. “Our blocking, our running backs, Cade throwing the ball, the way we caught it. Our defense also played a great first half, allowing us to get to a running clock.”
The Hilltoppers held the Lions to 106 yards, including 18 rushing, in the first half. Cornerback Luke Phelan recovered a fumble to stop one St. Viator drive, and safety Bill Rotnicki intercepted a pass to halt another. Junior defensive back Joe Harvey intercepted a pass in the third quarter to help preserve the shutout.
“Our preparation is the key,” Rotnicki said. “Everyone is really working hard, and Jaws (defensive coordinator Jake Jaworski) is my guy. He’s one of the smartest coaches out here. He tells us what to expect coming into every game.
“One of our goals is to limit teams to 3.5 yards rushing or less per carry. If we’re able to do that, we should be successful. That means our line is doing their job, and that means they have to spread it out, and that leaves the guys in the back in position to make plays.”
A running clock started the second half. When lightning was spotted at the end of the third quarter, Sharp and Lions coach Brandon New decided to end the game.
“The running clock allowed us not to have to deal with the weather,” Sharp said. “A lot of credit has to go to Marty Jennings, the St. Viator athletic director, for making the time change, and I have a lot of respect for Brandon New. We both played our subs in the second half to get them playing time, and we were able to get out of here with both players and fans getting to safety. There was no sense in trying to wait around to finish the game.”
The Hilltoppers face Marian Central and former JCA player and assistant coach, Mike Maloney, on Friday. Maloney is in his first year as head coach of Marian Central after head coaching stints at Johnsburg, Joliet Central and St. Ignatius.
“The hardest thing to do is to play and coach against people you respect and love,” Sharp said. “Mike is like family to me. He played for me as a captain on my first state championship team. He was a coach with us. It’s hard. We’re going to play as hard as we can, but I know Mike will have his team ready and prepared for us.”