The Times IHSA playoff preview: Seneca, Sandwich face tough tests in state quarterfinals

Fighting Irish host Wilmington; Indians visit Wheaton Academy

Seneca football coach Terry Maxwell lauds his team during a timeout of their first-round playoff win at home.

Class 4A

Sandwich (8-3) at Wheaton Academy (10-1)

When: 7 p.m. Friday

About the Indians: As Friday Night Drive’s Eddie Carifio asked on the FND Illinois Valley podcast, “Who had Sandwich in the 4A quarterfinals on their playoff bingo card?” Probably not many around the state after the Indians did not field a varsity team in 2022, but here Sandwich is, one of the final 64 teams still playing after surviving Ridgewood 49-34 in the opening round before cruising past Chicago Dyett 54-6 in Round 2. Expect this one to be more in line with the Ridgewood game than the Dyett one, with Sandwich hoping to slow down a high-scoring Wheaton Academy offense and/or keep up with it using its own run-first attack led by RBs Simeion Harris (four first-half TDs last Saturday) and Nick Michalek (95 yards rushing vs. Dyett). The Indians have scored three or more touchdowns in all but two of their games this season – both of those losses, to Richmond-Burton in Week 4 and Rochelle in Week 7 – meaning a low-scoring game, like Wheaton Academy won last Friday, probably does not favor them. This is Sandwich’s first quarterfinal appearance since going 9-3 in 2011. The Indians made the 4A semifinals in 2010.

About the Warriors: Wheaton Academy is back in the Class 4A postseason for the third consecutive season and sixth time over the past nine years. The Warriors had last won a playoff game in 2021 and have never made it to Week 12. This year’s Warriors have have bucked that trend while also setting a school record for wins in a season. The tri-champions of the Chicagoland Christian Conference suffered their lone loss to Chicago Hope Academy 30-29 back in Week 4. Its been seven wins since, including a 68-0 thrashing of Chicago Phoenix to open the postseason followed by last Friday’s 12-3 slugfest win over St. Viator in which the Warriors held dynamic St. Viator QB Cooper Kmet – Chicago Bears TE Cole Kmet’s younger brother – to 96 yards passing and 16 rushing. QB Brett Kasper and RB Brandon Kiebles are dangerous runners for Wheaton Academy, while kicker Ethan Head has a big leg and can turn stalled drives into three points, although he did have two field goals blocked last Friday. This is the only game in the state being played Friday and not Saturday.

Friday Night Drive pick: Wheaton Academy

Class 2A

Wilmington (10-1) at Seneca (11-0)

When: 2 p.m. Saturday

Last matchup: Seneca 27, Wilmington 21 (2023 Week 1)

About the Wildcats: Wilmington expected to have a bit more of a fight on its hands in Round 2 against an undefeated Tri-Valley team that ousted them from the playoffs last year. But after Tri-Valley held a 14-7 lead through one quarter, the Wildcats promptly scored the game’s next 35 points to secure a runaway victory. The win mirrored many of Wilmington’s wins during its current 10-game winning streak, where its punishing running game set the tone for everything. Wilmington outgained Tri-Valley 375-44 and was never forced into a passing situation. RB Kyle Farrell led the attack once again, amassing more than 200 yards on 22 carries, but he also got plenty of help from backfield-mate Ryan Kettman, as he scored three times during his 134-yard effort. After Tri-Valley’s first-quarter scoring, the Vikings were held to virtually no yardage over the final three quarters. Since allowing 27 points to Seneca in the season-opener, Wilmington has allowed an average of only nine points a game to its other 10 opponents. Expect a physical contest, even by these teams’ standards.

About the Fighting Irish: Seneca was great in all three facets of the game in its Round 2 win over Rockridge, making multiple big plays on special teams to blow the game wide open. There are just too many offensive weapons on Seneca’s side for opponents to try to stop it. A 300-plus yard rushing attack almost seems like a given right now for the Fighting Irish, with quality backs like Nathan Grant and Asher Hamby leading a multi-faceted attack. QBs Paxton Giertz or Grant also can make a play downfield for Seneca if need be. The first meeting between Seneca and Wilmington was a back-and-forth battle before Seneca imposed its will and deployed its highly effective offensive line, one that has helped the Irish run for more than 3,000 yards this season, on a pivotal 15-play drive that decided it. There’s no big secret here. Whomever is able to establish what it wants to do in the trenches will find itself in the 2A semifinals. Seneca last made it to the quarterfinals with a trip to the 3A Elite Eight in 2013. The Irish’s last time in the state semifinals was during their 2A state championship season in 1990.

FND Pick: Wilmington

Sandwich's Nate Hill (23) runs the ball during the fourth quarter on Saturday Nov. 4, 2023, while playing against Dyett High School at Gately Stadium in Chicago.