The buzz in the stands
At last, we have kickoff. The state’s lone first-round game between defending state champions – Batavia in Class 6A, Mt. Carmel in 7A – gained considerable traction from the moment it was announced at shortly after 9 p.m. Saturday. Comcast Sports Net and IHSA execs pegged it for a CSN game of the week broadcast before the clock struck 10.
"We got to watch them up close [at state last season]," Caravan coach Frank Lenti said of the Bulldogs. "I mean, I was right there on the field watching them before we played last year. They're a fun team to watch."
Lenti, the state's winningest coach with 344 victories, stands by the Caravan's split-back veer offense, and why not? It's helped produce 29 straight playoff appearances and 11 state championships out of the vaunted Chicago Catholic Blue.
Lenti says his split-back veer is synonymous with the triple option. The Bulldogs have played against elements of option attacks in past playoff runs, and must be especially sharp in identifying whether it's quarterback Anthony Thompson or running backs A.J. Lewis, A.J. Ries or Jaquan Buntyn carrying the ball.
Offensive lineman Jack White (6-foot-3, 291 pounds), Mt. Carmel's lone returning offensive starter from 2013, shifted from guard to tackle during the season. Syracuse recruit A.J. Duerig (6-3, 278), a transfer student from Indiana, has been limited down the stretch due to injury.
"Veer, veer option, they get first downs and they have very, very good athletes all across the board," Bulldogs coach Dennis Piron said. "They're a very good opponent."
Best-case scenario for the Caravan
Mt. Carmel, which ended the regular season on a three-game winning streak just to become playoff-eligible, harnesses its consistency against the four-time defending Upstate Eight Conference River Division champs.
"Our kids, I tell them, 'Consistency is more important than greatness,' but we've not had consistency all year long," Lenti said, adding the team only has been consistent in a 28-27 loss to Philadelphia St. Joseph in Week 1 and last week's 10-7 victory against Loyola.
The Caravan need top defensive lineman DeAndre Greer, one of four returning defensive starters, to play at full strength. They occasionally used only two down defensive linemen against Loyola.
"Now it's just a one-game season. Be good or be gone," Lenti said. "We lost three games we might have been capable of winning, but we didn't. So you only get credit for the ones you do. Obviously, you're facing a very good opponent and you're going into their house. I know it's going to be a crazy crowd for them, so you're got to bring your A-game, if that's possible."
Best-case scenario for the Bulldogs
Sticking to its recent stretch-run script, Batavia integrated a handful of top defenders into its power running game to spell fullback/defensive end Noah Frazier and diversify the attack beyond speedsters Blake Crowder and Zach Garrett.
"Oh, yeah. Definitely love it," Crowder said. "For the playoffs, again, the versatility of having all these running backs and putting them in in different situations is something that we really value. And it's really key in the games. It's a big thing."
Linebacker Jake Hlava actually leads all Bulldogs rushers with a 7.9-yards per carry average, albeit on just 13 attempts. However many times he or any other Bulldog gets to run, Batavia must stay technically sound behind a veteran offensive line anchored by tackles Patrick Gamble and Jack Breshears to sustain drives and control the tempo.
The Bulldogs gathered together to watch the IHSA's annual playoff pairings show last week. How did they react to the early groundswell of hype? By getting the earliest look at Caravan game film possible.
Mt. Carmel boasts a long list of accomplishments, including two straight state titles (the Caravan won in 8A in 2012). But the Bulldogs and their throng of vocal backers know Batavia's program isn't exactly new to meaningful November games, either.
Kevin Druley's prediction: Batavia 28, Mt. Carmel 21
"Respect All, Fear None" goes the time-honored B-Town mantra. The Bulldogs hold true to it, challenging the Caravan throughout a memorable afternoon before separating themselves late in the game.
The bigwigs at creditmonkey.com immediately re-assess their recent finding that Batavia is just the third-happiest city in Illinois.