Digital Access

Digital Access
Access theherald-news.com from all your digital devices and receive breaking news and updates from around the area.

Home Delivery

Home Delivery
Local news, sports, business, classified and more! News you can use every day.

Text Alerts

Text Alerts
Choose your news! Select the text alerts you want to receive: breaking news, weather, and more.

Email Newsletters

Email Newsletters
Have our latest news, sports and obituaries emailed directly to you Monday through Friday so you can keep up with what's happening in the area.
Prep Sports

Herron: JCA seeks more history against Hillcrest

Joliet Catholic Academy's defense makes a stop in their Class 5A second-round playoff game with Marion on November 3. The Hilltoppers host Hillcrest in Saturday's 5A semifinals.
Joliet Catholic Academy's defense makes a stop in their Class 5A second-round playoff game with Marion on November 3. The Hilltoppers host Hillcrest in Saturday's 5A semifinals.

If I told you that Joliet Catholic Academy's football program was in a good position to make more IHSA history by becoming the first team to pull off another playoff accomplishment, many might probably say that it was no big deal.

After all, the Hilltoppers are the all-time state leaders in football championships with 13, are tied for first for the most title game appearances along with Chicago's Mount Carmel at 17 and are also tied for second along with East St. Louis for the most playoff trips with 40, which is one behind leader Geneseo.

The feat that I'll talk about certainly isn't as significant as those that are listed above, but considering what JCA has gone through the past few seasons, it's still very significant.

If the 8-4 Hilltoppers can capture a victory over unbeaten Hillcrest in Saturday's 2 p.m. Class 5A semifinal game at Joliet Memorial Stadium, they would become the first four-loss team in state history to earn a trip to a championship game after needing a win in their regular season finale against a team that was also playoff-bound.

And as it turns out, that win was against another team that has advanced to the semifinals, marking one of four semifinalists that JCA has faced this season, which no doubt helps to explain why it is still competing at this point in the season.

After putting together an amazing run where they used streaks of 16 and 18 years to advance to 34 playoff appearances in 35 years from 1981 to 2015, the past two seasons were definitely disappointing ones for one of Illinois' most storied programs.

JCA was 1-8 in 2016 and then went 3-6 a year ago in the debut for coach Jake Jaworski. The two-year drought of playoff trips had only been done one other time, in 1979 and 1980, but that was in an era when it was more difficult to advance.

I was on hand for the week six game this year against Benet Academy at the Stadium when the Redwings scored a touchdown with 12 seconds left to claim a 20-13 win as JCA fell to 3-3. Although a victory over Marian Catholic the next week was expected, the Hilltoppers still needed a win at Nazareth Academy or at Notre Dame in the last two weeks.

The Roadrunners didn't cooperate and captured a 49-20 victory to leave JCA needing a road victory over the Dons, who hadn't lost since falling 28-21 to Marist in its East Suburban Catholic Conference opener. But the Hilltoppers went to Niles and captured a 33-17 victory.

Notre Dame has bounced back from that loss and advanced to the Class 6A semifinals, where it will host unbeaten Cary-Grove. JCA's other three opponents that also advanced to the semifinals are Marist in 8A, Nazareth in 7A and IC Catholic in 4A.

There is another 8-4 team in this year's semifinals, Herscher in Class 3A, who hosts unbeaten Byron. In the 18 years since the IHSA expanded the playoffs to 32 teams in each class which opened the door for many more 5-4 qualifiers, a total of 920 teams have made the postseason with five wins, but only five of those have advanced to a title game.

JCA had an opportunity to do that in 2012 and won three-straight in the playoffs, including a 21-20 overtime win over Lincoln-Way West. But the Hilltoppers fell 40-37 to Montini in the semifinals and the Broncos went on to beat Morris for the Class 5A title the next week.

I reported on one our area's best efforts by a 5-4 playoff entry, which was Lincoln-Way East's 2004 team. The Griffins avenged an earlier loss to upset two-time defending 8A champ Lockport before picking up wins over Brother Rice and Sandburg. But East's hopes were dashed 35-19 in the semifinals by eventual champion Downers Grove North.

With a perfect 12-0 record to its credit, Hillcrest is clearly a force to be reckoned with. Coach Morgan Weaver's Hawks allowed 16 points in their opener against Rich Central but hasn't given up more than seven points since then and have four shutouts while allowing just 47 points in their last 11 games. Hillcrest has outscored its opponents 114-7 in the playoffs.

Last year, Hillcrest advanced to the 5A quarterfinals, which was its furthest advancement since 1975, when it fell to eventual champion Joliet Catholic 20-16 in the 4A quarterfinals.

So history definitely could be in the making for the Hilltoppers on Saturday. JCA's quest to return to a state championship game for the first time since 2011 seemed like a long shot late in the year but it's not only on the verge of doing something that's very special, but also is a much-needed boost for one of the state's all-time great programs.

Loading more