JOLIET – Joliet Catholic Academy celebrated the return of four of its wounded players Friday with a 35-28 East Suburban Catholic victory over Marist at Joliet Memorial Stadium.
The win gives the Hilltoppers (8-1, 6-1) a share of the ESCC title with Notre Dame and sends them into the Class 5A playoffs with renewed confidence from playing with something close to a full deck.
Guard Shane Raber and wingback Harry Davis returned on the offensive side of the ball, and linebackers Jordan Bates and Brad Krisch were back for the defense. Bates and Davis endured especially long absences. Bates hadn’t played since the season opener against Providence and Davis fractured his ankle in the first quarter in Week 3.
Contributions from all were needed as playoff-bound Marist (5-4, 4-3) gave JCA all it wanted.
In fact, it was tied 21-21 with less than 5 minutes remaining when Hilltoppers safety Bill Rotnicki intercepted Brendan Skalitzky’s pass over the middle and returned it 19 yards to the JCA 48.
Michael Johnson ignited a touchdown march with 17- and 14-yard runs and then scored the go-ahead touchdown from 3 yards out. Zach Lukasik’s fourth of five conversion kicks made it 28-21.
Lukasik, who sacked Skalitzky on the play preceding Rotnicki’s pick, sacked him again to help set up a fourth-and-16 on the JCA 17. Marist tried a multi-lateral play, and before it was over, JCA safety Patrick Tippet scooped up the ball and took it 4 yards for the clinching score with 1:33 to go.
“That was nice to get two sacks at critical times in the fourth quarter,” Lukasik said. “Then on that crazy play where we scored, all I remember is the ball winding up 15 yards back down the field and it hadn’t touched the ground until finally Tippet scooped it up and scored.”
At that, Marist came back with a touchdown pass with 25 seconds remaining, but the ensuing onside kick attempt failed, and it was over.
“It was really nice to have our original starters on both sides of the ball,” Lukasik said. “I’m remembering the way it was for the Providence game.”
Skalitzky completed 21 of 37 passes for 324 yards and four touchdowns.
“The biggest problem for our defense was they are a short-passing team,” Lukasik said. “Our big thing at practice was to work on shallow routes and get everyone to the ball.”
With Davis back, JCA went with Michael Johnson, normally a wingback, in a tailback-like position, with Davis and Ke’Von Johnson at the wings. Michael Johnson rushed for 143 yards in 23 carries and scored twice. Davis chipped in 65 yards in 10 carries and scored once. Ke’Von Johnson contributed 76 in nine carries and caught an 80-yard touchdown pass from Cade Earl.
“We wanted to keep a little surprise for everybody with Michael giving a look at tailback,” Davis said with a smile. “This was our first time using it. We’ll get used to it.”
As for being on the field after watching so many games from the sideline, Davis said. “It did feel good to be back. I feel like I’m 100 percent. I have to get back at it and get ready for next week.”
“We got our guys back,” JCA coach Dan Sharp said. “We needed them. Marist is a very good team. The games they lost were tough ones. Between that and the [rainy] weather, we knew it would be tough.
“Regardless, we have to quit shooting ourselves in the foot like we did again tonight. Penalties to kill drives, jumping offside on fourth down, those things are killing us.”