Joliet Catholic captured its state-best 14th title in 2018 and in a program that has set that sort of standard for itself, the issue always becomes how one sustains that high level of success.
That title team was senior dominated and left a lot of voids for the Hilltoppers to fill in 2019, many of which happened to be filled by then sophomores, now juniors that give the team a solid foundation on which to build for this season.
So while a quarterfinal loss to Mascoutah in the Class 5A playoffs was a bit of a surprise to some, a little bit of the sting was taken out of the loss by looking ahead to the prospects for the next season with 16 players returning that were either starters or heavy contributors.
"We're pretty excited about what we have coming back," Joliet Catholic coach Jake Jaworski said. "We had six sophomores start for us last season, and we've got a really good quality class of seniors that comes back and has gotten better."
Head coach: Jake Jaworski
Last year's record: 8-4 (Class 5A quarterfinal loss to Mascoutah)
With so many returners from a team that experienced a fairly strong level of success, will that core be enough to allow Joliet Catholic to take the next step?
"You can't put a price on experience," Jaworski said. "It's huge moving forward for us."
The large group of sophomores placed into duty last year learned on the job, and over the course of the second half of the season seemed to find their footing rather nicely.
"When you looked back at the group from 2018, we had a number of those guys that started as sophomores because we didn't really have anybody else," Jaworski said. "But this group of sophomores that played last year, played because they competed and won the spot. It's a little bit of a different scenario here, because some of those guys that they beat out last year are back competing with those same guys again, which is exciting. There's a competition that is being created in practice that is good for the entire team."
Players to Watch
Junior running back Jordan Anderson leads the way. The bruising 6-foot-2, 210-pounder recently picked up his first Division I offer from Toledo, and the Rockets likely won't be the last to offer the promising runner. Anderson gained over 1,000 yards as a sophomore despite being hampered by some nagging injuries throughout the year.
"He's a big bodied kid who continues to grow, I know he's been working hard from a strength standpoint and also from a speed and agility standpoint," Jaworski said. "But he's not going to be alone, we've also got some guys that are going to share the ball with him and we're excited about those guys, too."
Quarterback Aiden Voss showed flashes of being a viable run-pass threat for Joliet Catholic and the Hilltoppers also have high hopes for a season of completely full health from senior running back/defensive back Ja'Aire Mack.
On the defensive side of the ball, Pat Strocchia should anchor the defensive line after experiencing a surge in his play late last season, while two cogs in the linebacker unit return in Michael Rouse and Robby Purchase. The Hilltoppers are also blessed with a very strong unit of returners in the secondary with Devean Washington, Jabril Williams and Ben Stoner all locked in.
Newcomers You Need to Know
With so many underclassmen playing significant roles last season, the Hilltoppers aren't expecting a lot of new faces to emerge.
But there are a few that have been presented opportunities that Jaworski feels will grab onto those chances.
Junior linebacker/defensive back Malachi Hood, senior linebacker Anthony Kasper and defensive backs Patrick Duffy and Ian Williams are all guys that could see their responsibilities increase.
"These are all guys that have kind of bided their time and waited for those opportunities to come up," Jaworski said.
2021 Schedule Analysis
Although it isn't official, it's believed that the Hilltoppers will be shaving off the two nonconference games from their schedule and play Weeks 3 through 9 on its originally assigned schedule for the fall of 2020. That will leave JCA with games against the three schools inside of their division (Fenwick, Marmion, St. Ignatius) and then four crossovers (St. Laurence, Brother Rice, Carmel, DePaul). The reformed schedule dropped two imposing nonconference games, but there's still ample opportunity for the Hilltoppers to be tested.
The potential of this junior class has been a topic of conversation since the group arrived on campus for the first time. If they come close to living up to the potential assigned to them, odds are Joliet Catholic will be a program well worth keeping an eye on.