By Jason Maholy
Of the 10 teams in The Regional-Reporter’s traditional coverage area, seven will be in action this weekend in the playoffs. Three of those teams – Marist, St. Laurence and Evergreen Park – faced must-wins in their regular season finales to get in, while Chicago Christian was postseason eligible but needed a win to be assured a berth. All, of course, stepped up and came through.
Also competing will be Richards and Shepard in Class 6A, and Brother Rice in Class 8A.
Here is a look at your area teams’ playoff matchups. (For Marist and Evergreen Park, see stories)
(4) Richards (8-1) v. (13) Washington (6-3)
The Bulldogs have all the pieces necessary to make a run to the Class 6A title game. They finally have running back Leshon Williams, who missed the majority of the regular season with an injury. The Iowa-bound back has power and speed and when healthy is as good as any of his peers at the position in Illinois. Junior quarterback Javon Robinson leads an offense that has scored 34 points per game. He is a dynamic playmaker who can run, throw and even catch. Among his weapons is Trishawn Lott, a wide receiver who took on the role of lead back during Williams’ absence and excelled.
The customarily physical and aggressive Bulldogs’ defense will get after quarterbacks and force turnovers, and has held opponents to 11.2 points per game.
Washington has played four playoff teams and won only one of those games. They can score, putting up better than 30 points per game, and allow a respectable 18.4. The Panthers began the season 3-3, finished strong, winning their final three games by the combined score of 122-21.
(12) Shepard (6-3) at (5) Peoria (8-1)
The Astros get a tough draw against a Lions team that scores 53.6 points per game, tops in Class 6A. They can, however, be scored upon, as they surrender 26.2, and Shepard has the firepower to put up points in a hurry. Wide receivers Jalen Smith and Ira Guyton, and running back Alex Harris are all playmakers who can take it to the house on any given play Matthew Hightower is a big, powerful running back who can churn out tough yards and picks up those crucial first downs that keep drives alive. The Astros ballhawking defense, meanwhile, set a program record with 16 interceptions. Smith and Elijah Vinson can make life miserable for quarterbacks who aren’t on their game.
The Astros have a potential rematch with South Suburban Red rival Richards in Round 2. The Bulldogs defeated them 28-13 in Week 8, in a game that decided the conference title.
(24) Brother Rice (5-4) at (9) Bartlett (8-1)
Don’t be fooled by the Crusaders’ bottom-third seed, this is a battle-tested team that will be a tough out and has the potential to make a run to the quarterfinals or beyond. Rice’s 51 opponents’ wins are the second-most in Class 8A (after Marist’s 56), and seven of their opponents made the playoffs. Consistent scoring has been a problem with the youth of junior first-year quarterback Ben Somers and inconsistency from the receiving corps being the primary issues; but junior running back Willie Shaw is a an absolute beast who can run over or around defenders. The Crusader D’s front seven should have the advantage against Bartlett, which wasn’t the case in its matchups in the brutal CCL/ESCC.
Bartlett is solid on both sides of the ball, scoring at a 40-points-per-game clip while allowing only 13.1, but four of their wins came versus teams that won two games or fewer.
(13) St. Laurence (5-4) at (4) Hillcrest (8-1)
This 5A battle has the potential to be one of the best first-round matchups in any class. The Vikings are four points away from being 7-2, suffering one-point losses to both Joliet Catholic and Providence. The offense is led by two juniors, quarterback Darius Wilson and running back Nate Thomas, who is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. St. Laurence doesn’t pass frequently, preferring to wear down defenses with a strong running game, but Wilson is efficient and has weapons in Thomas, Aaron Wofford and Jalen Hamilton at his disposal.
Hillcrest is rolling, going unbeaten since an opening night loss to Brother Rice. The St. Laurence defense will have to contain the Hawk’s Mar-Keise Irving, a rare talent who as explosive as any running back in the state. Hillcrest scores 35.2 points per game and allows only 13.6, and they have signature victories over Richards (8-1) and Lemont (7-2)
(11) Chicago Christian (6-3) at (6) Mercer County (6-3)
Who are the Knights playing? Quickly: Mercer County High is in Aledo, which is near the Quad Cities. They’re nickname is the Golden Eagles and they play in the Lincoln Trail Conference. And they are apparently a solid tam, winning six games against opponents that have won a collective 44 games, compared to Christians’ 33 opponent wins. This is a team that was 2-3 but won its final four regular season games.
The Knights have been an enigma this season: In their six wins they’ve outscored opponents 237-66; in their three losses they’ve been outscored 122-17. One of those losses was a 48-6 drubbing to Aurora Central Catholic, which accounted for the Chargers’ lone win and in which ACC scored more points than in their other eight games combined (39).
Christian is a senior-led squad that has faced stiff competition from several much-larger schools. The Knights feature playmakers in the Bulthuis cousins: Danny and Ryley, and complementary players Ty Sperling and Aaron Coffey. The team prides itself on hard-nosed defense.