JOLIET – Before the high school football season began, Joliet Catholic coach Dan Sharp said the key to the Hilltoppers’ success would be the line play, on both sides of the ball.
“Both lines today showed why I said that’s the strength of this team,” Sharp said Saturday afternoon after the Hilltoppers rolled over Marian Central, 47-15, in Round 2 of the Class 5A state playoffs at ATI Field at Joliet Memorial Stadium.
Next up for JCA (10-1) is a quarterfinal battle next weekend at Nazareth. Marian Central (8-3), coached by ex-JCA all-stater and assistant coach Mike Maloney, also dropped a 41-3 decision to the Hilltoppers in a Week 5 East Suburban Catholic encounter.
The Hilltoppers established their dominance along the line of scrimmage early and never backed down. They led, 27-0, at halftime and were up 33-0 in the third quarter before Marian Central got on the board.
JCA rushed for 265 yards, with Michael Johnson gaining 148 and Ke’Von Johnson 107. Both ran for three touchdowns.
Quarterback Cade Earl was on the money, completing 7 of 9 passes in a stiff wind for 110 yards. Michael Johnson and Harry Davis each caught three for 49 yards. Two screen passes to Michael Johnson allowed JCA to overcome third-and-long situations.
“We had that confrontation with them [Hurricanes] in midseason,” Michael Johnson said of his spirited running. “We let them know right away that we weren’t out here to play games.
“In the first quarter, I ran the ball up the middle and almost every time our big guys up front cleared everything out.”
One by one, Johnson complimented the alignment of Tyler Witt, Ze’Veyon Furcron, Ricky Fleming, Shane Raber and Ethan Emerson from tackle to tackle.
“We hadn’t been at our best the last couple of weeks,” Witt said of the line. “We had a really tough week of practice, and we made a huge improvement today.”
Sharp took it a step further.
“Mike [Johnson] is such a threat inside, and when we put our bruiser [Josh Parenti] in there at fullback in the second half, he made some terrific blocks,” he said.
“And our tight ends, [Colin] O’Brien and [Jake] Kinsella, they are our unsung heroes. They don’t get a lot of notoriety, but they have been doing some outstanding blocking.”
Michael Johnson said the Hilltoppers were prepared for every defensive adjustment Marian Central attempted.
“When they shifted over, we knew what play to run,” he said. “We were mentally focused on what we had to do.”
On the other side of the ball, ends Zach Lukasik and Luke Mander, tackle Ken Aguirre and the Witt/Furcron tandem at the adjacent tackle were equally dominant.
Marian Central’s Emitt Peisert entered with 1,657 rushing yards but managed to scratch out only about 150 total in two meetings with the Hilltoppers.
On Saturday, Peisert closed with 96 on 17 carries, but 37 came on one third-quarter run when JCA already had the game in hand. Hurricanes quarterback J.R. Budmayr completed 15 of 32 passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns. But again, any damage was done after things were decided.
“Being able to take away their running game was huge,” Witt said. “Jaws [defensive coordinator Jake Jaworski] did a great job preparing us.”
Marian Central tried to pound the ball against JCA in the earlier meeting, but to no avail. This time the Hurricanes ran a spread, but again, with little success.
“That’s the genius, the intelligence, of coach Jaworski,” Sharp said. “He does a great job preparing a defense for a spread attack. He was ready for it.”
In addition to limiting the Hurricanes to 81 yards in the first half, 256 for the game and 14 first downs, the Hilltoppers also had three takeaways in the second quarter.
Cornerback Riley O’Donnell came up with his third interception of the playoffs, and that led to the touchdown that made it 20-0 in the second quarter. Lukasik hit Budmayr as he was trying to throw a pass into the flat. It went backward for a lateral and Mander recovered it, leading to the score that made it 27-0.
Then with Marian Central in a first-and-goal at the 2 in the final minute of the half, Budmayr ran a sneak to the 1. He was injured slightly and had to leave for the next play. That was huge because Gavin Scott entered, and he and Peisert could not connect on a handoff. Lukasik recovered the fumble to end the threat.
It was that kind of an afternoon for the Hilltoppers.