If you looked back to August and considered the expectant fortunes of the Lincoln-Way East and Joliet Catholic football programs, it seems almost bizarre to contemplate the fact that both of them now find themselves in the same place: one win away from the state championship game.
It wasn’t much of a leap to see Lincoln-Way East in this situation.
The Griffins are the defending Class 8A state champions after beating the same team they play in this weekend’s semifinal round, Loyola, by a 23-14 score last November at Northern Illinois University.
Although the Griffins lost several key players to graduation, most people believed that Lincoln-Way East had more than enough talent to make another run at the big trophy this season.
And that’s exactly what has happened, but the sheer force by which the Griffins have dominated opponents has been astonishing. Lincoln-Way East has outscored its foes, 558-70, this season and instituted the “mercy rule” (a 40-point lead sets the game clock in constant motion) in nine of its 12 games.
Lincoln-Way East has allowed only four teams to score in double digits against a spectacular defensive unit, and no teams have held the offense to less than 30 points. The Griffins’ “closest” game was a 19-point victory in a Week 2 win over Naperville Central.
In some ways, something like this was expected from a program that has advanced to at least the third round of the playoffs every year since 2010 and never has failed to make the postseason since the program began in 2001, but all the numbers blended together lead to a resume that stacks up historically against about any other program.
Joliet Catholic, on the other hand, took a significantly different path to the state semifinals.
The Hilltoppers, owners of 13 state championships in their heyday, had fallen from the ranks of the programs you expect to make deep runs in the postseason.
Two straight years without playoff berths and disappointing records of 3-6 in 2017 and 1-8 in 2016 had some wondering if the glory days may have vanished.
The schedule also bore ominous problems for the Hilltoppers to get back into the postseason.
A loaded slate featuring seven teams that made the playoffs in 2017 awaited JCA. Promise was restored right off the bat when the Hilltoppers defeated St. Rita, and things were proceeding as well as could be expected when JCA ran into a Week 6 matchup with Benet. But a late touchdown allowed the RedWings to escape Memorial Stadium with a 20-13 win.
That gave the Hilltoppers their third loss and precious little breathing room for returning to the playoffs. The fourth loss came to an extremely talented Nazareth team in Week 8. It all came down to a showdown in
Week 9 with a Niles Notre Dame team that had a 6-2 record.
But with their backs to the wall, Joliet Catholic upset Notre Dame to earn its spot in the 256-team field. And once they got there, and the pressure of not making the field was released, the Hilltoppers have been a much more dominant version of themselves.
Three playoff foes entered those games with a combined 26-4 record and left their matchup with the Hilltoppers soundly defeated. JCA has outscored opponents, 153-48, in the postseason.
For both Lincoln-Way East and Joliet Catholic it doesn’t matter if the road to the playoffs is bumpy or smooth, it just matters whether you are prepared to make the trip.