JOLIET – Of all of the many players who were celebrating at Joliet Memorial Stadium after Joliet Catholic Academy’s dominating 42-6 victory over Hillcrest in Saturday’s Class 5A semifinals, one group in particular was thrilled to see how all of its hard work has paid off over the years to get the Hilltoppers back to a state title game.
Members of JCA’s offensive line, including four seniors who have been three-year varsity performers and the junior who joined them this season, had good reason to savor the program’s first trip to a championship game since 2011 after seeing their efforts up front pay off for 361 rushing yards and six touchdowns on the ground, including five in the final half.
For seniors Colin Cox, Ryan Laule, Dave Monnot and Ty O’Janovac and junior Conor Kovas, their emergence as an outstanding offensive line was able to help their team score 42 points against a defense that had only given up 47 points in their past 11 games.
“We knew from the beginning of the season that our line was going to be one of the stronger points of this team,” Monnot said. “We had four returning starters and a very promising right guard. And getting into these playoffs, we’ve really clicked and figured stuff out and started to advance our game to a different level. We’ve battled a lot of adversity, and in the beginning of the season, we didn’t quite know how to deal with it, but once we got to the playoffs, some of the pressure to get here was taken, off and we can play our game.”
While the efforts of running backs Keenan Hailey and Nick Iannantone have been well-documented, the five guys up front realize that all of the hard work that they’ve put in not only this season, but during their Hilltopper careers, has made a significant impact.
“This is kind of something that we’ve waiting for,” Laule said. “You can put the work in, but sometimes, calls just don’t go your way. Unlike some other sports, a lot of this is decided by us, so there were mental mistakes that we had to clean up and come together since most of us have been together for three years. I’ve always tried to emulate the line when we were freshmen because they had such a strong bond, and they had a young kid, too, and helped him tremendously. And I wouldn’t want anyone else running behind me.”
With four key returners back along the line, prospects figured to be upbeat for the offense and the junior newcomer completed the puzzle to help an attack that moved the ball with efficiency in a contest in which they broke open after leading, 8-6, at halftime.
“This is amazing,” O’Janovac said. “Starting in the summer, we knew after a 3-6 season that we were going to be better. It all started in the offseason, and everyone was supporting each other, and we had one of the best offseasons that we could have. And we’ve been helping Conor throughout the whole thing since we were grooming him to come up. Every day after practice, we’d beat up on him, but it’s paying off now since he’s definitely holding his own among seniors that he’s going up against.”
After JCA lost a heartbreaker in a Week 6 game to Benet Academy, the Hilltoppers had a tough road to make the playoffs.
But thanks in no small part to the work of the O-line, the Hilltoppers beat Notre Dame to become the first 5-4 playoff entry in state history to beat another playoff squad in Week 9 and then win four postseason games to play for a title.
“Our bond has been growing every year,” Cox said. “And this year is the closest that we’ve been working out together and have done a lot of stuff together to get to where we’re at now. It’s awesome to have three of the guys that I’ve been playing with for three years, and Conor is doing a great job. And our backs are just phenomenal in making big plays for us. We’re just so happy now to go back to state, and it’s just an awesome time right now.”
Coach Jake Jaworski’s Hilltoppers will run into a familiar playoff opponent of theirs in recent years: Montini, which won, 42-20, over Sterling. JCA again will be the underdog against the 12-1 Broncos, whose only loss came against Class 8A finalist Brother Rice. The youngest member of the offensive line is excited just to be able to play in a state title game.
“Being the only junior on the offensive line, they keep my head on my shoulders, and if I mess up, they’re not angry with me. They’re just trying to hype me up and get me ready for the next play,” Kovas said. “We always talk about to just keep going throughout the game, no matter what, and that’s really helped me out. It’s awesome to see how we’re playing.”