LaGRANGE PARK – There are two ways to summarize Joliet Catholic’s 35-21 loss to East Suburban Catholic Conference rival Nazareth in Saturday’s quarterfinal in the Class 5A state football playoffs.
Murphy’s Law gets the kudos, as everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Hilltoppers (10-2). Or, credit the Roadrunners (10-2) for the quality team they are.
There was plenty of both analyses emanating from the JCA camp in the aftermath.
“They have pure talent,” JCA defensive end and kicker Zach Lukasik said. “It was the battle of the giants. We knew going in that whoever won this game would be in good shape to go to state.”
“Julian [Love, a Notre Dame recruit] is an amazing athlete for them,” Hilltoppers coach Dan Sharp said of the two-way standout who does everything. “I’ve been in coaching 38 years, and he is one of the best football players I have ever gone against.”
As for Murphy’s Law, start at the beginning.
An uncharacteristic mixup in the JCA backfield on the first play from scrimmage resulted in a fumble that Nazareth’s Christian Davis recovered on the Hilltoppers’ 27. Moments later, on third-and-goal from the 9, Carson Bartels hit Davis for the first touchdown.
Davis was heard from again on the Hilltoppers’ next possession. He picked off Cade Earl’s pass on the Nazareth 26 and weaved his way 74 yards for a touchdown. With 8:18 left in the first quarter, JCA trailed, 14-0. Try as they might, the Hilltoppers never could catch up.
“I hate it when you play against a good team and make those mistakes,” Sharp said. “Turnovers were haunting us all day.”
JCA rebounded with a 71-yard scoring drive. Earl took it in on a 5-yard bootleg to get within 14-7. Love restored the two-touchdown spread when he took a short pass over the middle on a second-and-25 on the next possession and converted it into a 66-yard scoring play.
Yet the Hilltoppers were not going away. They marched 97 yards in 17 plays, capped by Harry Davis’ 10-yard run, to make it 21-14 midway through the second quarter.
The JCA defense was beginning to take over as well in the second quarter. The Hilltoppers finished the first half running 44 offensive plays to Nazareth’s 11 and had 212 yards from scrimmage to Nazareth’s 108, yet trailed, 21-14.
Bartels was a thorn in JCA’s side, completing 12 of 18 passes for 186 yards. But early in the third quarter, cornerback Luke Phelan came up with an interception and returned it to the Nazareth 37, but the Hilltoppers went three-and-out.
“We were anticipating [Bartels] taking advantage of openings in the line and running more,” Lukasik said. “He stayed in there and threw more than we anticipated.”
Later in the third quarter, the Roadrunners drove 86 yards to stretch their lead to 28-14. Then up popped more of Murphy’s Law.
First, Nazareth’s rolling kickoff stopped at the 1 instead of finding the end, giving the Hilltoppers something they faced most of the day – relatively bad field position.
But after a lengthy punt by Earl, Nazareth was pinned at its 2. JCA defensive tackle Ken Aguirre belted Nazareth running back Ivory Kelly-Martin, apparently in the end zone for a safety. However, Aguirre forced a fumble that rolled toward the back of the end zone. If the Hilltoppers recover, it’s a touchdown. Instead, Bartels picked it up and ran it to the 3.
“I remember being on the ground, the ball being a few feet away, and me trying to crawl after it,” Lukasik said. “But the quarterback picked it up and got it out of there.”
On JCA’s next possession, Michael Johnson [28 rushes, 153 yards] went airborne trying to dive into the end zone on a run from the Nazareth 11. He went down at about the 1 but lost the ball in the process. The officials ruled fumble, and Nazareth’s Christopher Simmons recovered in the end zone.
“I reached out and felt my knees down before they hit the ball out and grabbed it,” said Johnson, who appealed the decision to the officials, but to no avail.
The Hilltoppers went 69 yards to score on their next possession with Earl sneaking in to cut the deficit to 28-21 with 6:19 left. But Love, running out of the wildcat formation, raced 77 yards a couple plays later to make it 35-21.
JCA’s last hope evaporated as the ensuing line-drive kickoff struck a Hilltopper up man in the face mask and rolled backward and toward the JCA sideline. Nazareth was ruled to have recovered it inbounds despite vehement protests from JCA coaches. That sealed the deal.
“It was four plays that created four scores for them or took one from us,” Sharp said. “We made mistakes, Murphy’s Law was happening. But did our kids fight back. They kept playing. This team will always be near and dear to me.”