CCL/ESCC notes: St. Laurence beats expectations to reach IHSA 4A semifinals

Vikings return to semifinals for first time since 2016

St Laurence's Aaron Ball (6) celebrates a touchdown during Class 4A third round playoff football game between St Laurence at IC Catholic Prep.  Nov 11, 2023.

St. Laurence head coach Adam Nissen has a rather prominent beard.

He emphatically states that it isn’t a playoff beard, but admits the general makeup of it might have changed a little bit during his team’s surprise 24-20 victory over IC Catholic in the Class 4A quarterfinals Saturday night.

“This is normal,” Nissen said of the beard. “This probably has a little bit more gray hairs in it after tonight, though.”

This is Nissen’s fifth year at the helm of the Vikings, a stint that prior to this year had equated to one playoff appearance, a first-round elimination in his first year in 2019. And other than back-to-back quarterfinal appearances in 2015 and 2016, the program hadn’t made much of a postseason dent in a while.

As such, there was limited reason to believe St. Laurence was primed to topple IC Catholic, which entered the postseason widely considered a co-favorite with Rochester to capture the 4A title just a year removed from a 3A state championship.

“This is normal. This probably has a little bit more gray hairs in it after tonight though.”

—  Adam Nissen, St. Laurence head coach

To say few believed outside of the Vikings huddle that Saturday’s outcome was coming is probably an understatement.

“Yeah, it’s been all season,” Nissen said. “So from Week 1, we’ve been doubted. We never get picked to win games. And I think our guys really kind of rally around that underdog role. And even coming into tonight, we hear the noise and we see it, but I think our guys thrive off that. We’re a pretty good football team, and we just have to do what we do and we should be OK.”

Ramblers show off offensive depth

Loyola coach Beau Desherow chose to start Saturday’s Class 8A quarterfinal against St. Ignatius with the ball because he wanted a quick start.

That confidence was infectious to the players, and Nicholas Arogundade caught an 80-yard touchdown pass on the game’s first play in the Ramblers’ 41-7 win.

“I love that he has the confidence that every possession we’re going to score, we’re going to make plays and give our defense breaks,” Arogundade said. “The defense has helped us a lot this season, being able to give them the breaks we did, that’s what meant the most to me.”

The Ramblers scored 34 points in the first half, and the starters added more in the third quarter before coming out for the backups the rest of the way.

Loyola once again showed off the diversity of its offense. Arogundade caught two touchdowns, running back Drew MacPherson ran in for two, and quarterback Ryan Fitzgerald and running back Finley Miller each ran for one.

Depth has been a key to Loyola’s success. Arogundade leads the team with 34 receptions and 454 receiving yards. But six Ramblers have at least 10 catches this season, nine have caught a touchdown pass, and 20 players have caught at least one pass.

Desherow knows there’s a lot of talent on his offense. That’s why he wants the ball.

“It’s a deep group. It’s a very deep group,” Desherow said. “Our offensive coordinator Tyler Vradenburg does a really good job as far as game planning and coming down with Ryan Fitzgerald, being able to take what defenses are giving us and not trying to force the ball places that he shouldn’t.”

Loyola defense came prepared

The Ramblers initially struggled to stop the Wolfpack’s triple-option offense Saturday but quickly adjusted and limited St. Ignatius from building any sort of momentum.

St. Ignatius drove to the Loyola 30-yard line from its own 28 on its first possession but couldn’t convert on a pass on fourth down. The Wolfpack went three-and-out and fumbled on their next three possessions and turned the ball over on an interception on their last possession of the first half, when they moved the ball into Loyola’s territory.

Desherow credited Loyola’s scout team, including linebacker Garvin St. John, who played fullback all week, which gave the Ramblers’ defense a good look at what St. Ignatius would try to run.

“You can’t have a performance like that without a great scout-team look,” Desherow said. “They did an amazing job all week.”

Wolfpack looking to grow

St. Ignatius coach Matt Miller already started looking ahead to January after his team’s loss to Loyola.

The Wolfpack learned what it takes to win in the Class 8A bracket in their first year competing at that level. With a potential move up to the CCL/ESCC Blue, Miller knows St. Ignatius needs to match Loyola’s size if it wants to compete for a state championship.

“Hopefully we rise to the occasion,” Miller said. “We feel like we belong, but it’s really going to start here in a month because the difference is clear. They’ve got some good players, but I think we should be able to play with them. We’ve got to get going.”

St. Ignatius faced a lot of change this season coming off a Class 6A semifinal appearance last year, the first in program history. The Wolfpack lost a majority of their starters and moved up to the CCL/ESCC Green and the Class 8A bracket.

Miller and the Wolfpack were surprised by the move but responded by winning the Green title and reaching the quarterfinal round. Miller was thankful to what his senior group accomplished but is ready to build upon the standard they set.

“They set the expectation that we would be playing for an 8A state championship,” Miller said. “That’s what we’re disappointed about right now. We appreciate the work and everything that they’ve done, but we have our work cut out for us moving forward, that’s for sure.”

Spartans’ impressive run

St. Francis was 2-2 through the first four games of the season, and after a narrow loss to Fenwick in Week 4, the Spartans knew something had to change.

Spartans running back TyVonn Ransom felt something wasn’t quite right back then. He believes a simple change sparked the team and has sent it on what grew to an eight-game winning streak Saturday with a win over Morgan Park in the Class 5A quarterfinals.

“We definitely changed up our intro at the beginning of games,” Ransom said. “We started putting in some more stuff that got us more hyped up and stuff.”

It’s hard to argue with the results. Right after the Fenwick loss, St. Francis ripped off three straight theatrical wins over Joliet Catholic, IC Catholic and St. Rita. It also netted the Spartans a Week 9 win over Nazareth, the same team it will have to dispatch in the semifinals to earn the school’s first title-game appearance since 2008, a 49-35 win over Metamora.

Broncos’ happy road trips

Montini showed that long road trips weren’t going to stop the Broncos from advancing in the Class 3A playoffs.

They traveled 93 miles and beat Prairie Central 44-20 in the second round and then traveled 104 miles to beat Princeton 27-9 in the quarterfinals. Montini coach Mike Bukovsky credited the whole program for working together to build a plan for success.

“Winning on the road two weekends in a row with long, extended trips, we did a great job,” Bukovsky said. “That’s part of being successful in the playoffs, putting together the itinerary and traveling and doing all those things. Our kids and our coaches respond to that. A big part is what happens behind the scenes, and I’m very, very happy with how we’ve been able to manage and be ready to play on the road.”

Looking at the numbers

The CCL/ESCC matched the most teams it’s had in the semifinals since the megaconference formed in 2019 with eight teams competing for a chance to reach for a state championship.

Eight teams qualified last season, topping the seven that qualified in 2021. Five teams reached the semifinals in the megaconference’s first season.

Loyola (8A), Mount Carmel (7A), St. Francis (5A), Nazareth (5A), Providence (5A), Joliet Catholic (5A), St. Laurence (4A) and Montini (3A) will all be in semifinal games this weekend.

The CCL/ESCC could have a team in six of the eight state-title games in Normal on Thanksgiving weekend and is guaranteed an all-CCL/ESCC Class 5A title match.

  • Friday Night Drive reporters Steve Soucie and Kevin Chlum contributed to this report.