JOLIET – Opposing offenses have felt the urge to throw in the direction of Joliet Catholic’s 5-foot-9, 170-pound senior cornerback Riley O’Donnell.
However, what transpired in the Hilltoppers’ 48-29 victory Friday night over Vernon Hills in the opening round of the Class 5A state playoffs at ATI Field at Joliet Memorial Stadium might change their thinking.
O’Donnell made his first two interceptions of the season after having a potential pick slip off his fingertips. He also swiped the ball from the Cougars’ Kiwanne Durant after a third-quarter reception and returned it a few yards to set up a touchdown.
Both interceptions, including one in the end zone late in the first half, also were turned into points by JCA’s explosive offense.
“All season I’ve been so close to making plays,” O’Donnell said. “Our coaches gave us a chance today. They put us in good position to make plays. I’m excited about how this worked out. It was our first playoff game and we knew it could be our last.”
“Pound for pound, he is one of the toughest guys on the team,” Hilltoppers coach Dan Sharp said of O’Donnell. “He battles and battles. He is just a menace.”
JCA (9-1) did not start well or finish well. In between, however, the Hilltoppers were dynamite as they advanced for a second-round rematch with Marian Central, which will kick off at 1 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium. JCA won the midseason meeting, 41-3, after leading 7-3 at halftime.
The Hilltoppers’ offense piled up 270 yards and scored 28 points in the second quarter alone against Vernon Hills (6-4). Quarterback Cade Earl threw all of his passes in the first half and completed 9 of 14 for 202 yards and a touchdown, an 11-yard strike to Ke’Von Johnson. He was intercepted once.
Johnson also rushed for 128 yards in eight carries, with touchdown runs of 17 and 11 yards.
Michael Johnson ran for 139 yards in 17 carries and scored from 5, 50 and 14 yards.
Harry Davis caught four passes for 120 yards and rushed for 47 in five tries, including a 21-yard scoring run, as the Hilltoppers closed with 513 total yards.
“Those three guys are all game-breakers,” Sharp said of the two Johnsons and Davis. “Michael Johnson really ran hard.”
Tight end Colin O’Brien helped ignite the passing game, grabbing Earl’s first two passes for 28 and 14 yards. On the second catch, he had to wrestle the ball away from a defender.
“Cade opened things up with his passing,” Sharp said. “Davis did an especially great job catching the ball. And I really liked the two-minute offense that Cade ran at the end of the first half. He was very accurate and Harry gives us that threat to throw the ball downfield.”
O’Brien’s catches keyed a drive that put JCA up 6-0 early, but the Cougars took a 7-6 lead midway through the first quarter and would have gone ahead by more if not for defensive back Nick Sandora. Vernon Hills’ Chris Mariella had his hands on a pass in the end zone on a fourth-and-7 play from the 13, but Sandora came in from behind, ripped it away and knocked it to the ground.
“That was one heck of a play on Nick’s part,” O’Donnell said.
With so much of JCA’s offensive production coming in the second quarter, the Hilltoppers erased their 7-6 deficit and grabbed a 34-7 halftime lead. The running clock was on after Davis scored his touchdown to make it 48-7 with 3:51 left in the third quarter.
Vernon Hills quarterback Connor McNamara completed his last 17 passes, though many were against second-team defenders in the fourth quarter, and finished 35 of 54 for 298 yards.
The Cougars made the final score more respectable thanks in part to recovering two consecutive onside kicks in the fourth quarter, their second and third such recoveries on the night.
“Our defense got turnovers [in addition to O’Donnell’s thievery, the defensive ends collaborated on a takeaway as Zach Lukasik forced a fumble on a sack and Luke Mander recovered] and a lot of what happened at the end was when we were subbing,” Sharp said. “Still, those guys have to come in and show they can play, too. We just wanted to finish better than we did.”