What we learned in Week 13: Top programs rule semifinal round

Just one newcomer to a bid in a state championship game

St. Francis' (55) Dan Theiss walks off the field as Nazareth celebrates a touchdown during the boys varsity IHSA 5A semifinal between Nazareth Academy and St. Francis high school in La Grange Park, IL on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023.

One of the most common retorts to someone over-celebrating a moment is “Act like you’ve been there before.”

The successful teams in the semifinal round went ahead and did just that.

A whopping seven victors (Lena-Winslow, Camp Point Central, Nazareth, East St. Louis, Mt. Carmel, Loyola and Lincoln-Way East) over the weekend have reached the championship game once again.

Five of the seven (Lena-Winslow, Nazareth, East St. Louis, Mt. Carmel and Loyola) will try to defend championships in the same classifications as 2022. There have never been that many schools in position to defend their titles in IHSA history. Four teams had the opportunity to do it in the 2010, 2002 and 2000 seasons (six-class system), but there has never been a championship weekend where five teams had the opportunity to defend championships.

The familiarity doesn’t end there.

• 11 of the 16 championship qualifiers have played in at least one championship game in the last two postseasons (2021 and 2022), that number grows to 12 if you include the 2019 postseason.

• There is only one of the 16 qualifiers that is making its first state championship appearance, Athens in Class 2A. Athens was 0-2 in two previous semifinals.

• The longest championship drought was ended by St. Laurence. The Vikings last made the title game in 1979, a 20-14 loss to East St. Louis Lincoln in the Class 5A title game (in the six-class era).

Downers Grove North last appeared in a state title game in 2004, downstate Mt. Carmel last made a title game appearance in 2011.

• Two of the title-game matchups, Class 1A’s Lena-Winslow and Camp Point Central and Class 8A’s Loyola and Lincoln-Way East are rematches from last year.

The Class 6A final pits Cary-Grove and East St. Louis and is a rekindling of the 2021 Class 6A championship game. Cary-Grove won that game 37-36 in a contest many believe is one of the best title games ever played.

Hurts so good

St. Laurence defensive lineman Cesar Chavez readily admitted his hand hurt.

But he was more than willing to accept the pain after blocking an extra point try by Wheaton Academy in the second overtime of their Class 4A semifinal clash.

“I just saw a vision,” Chavez said. “I had to give up my body for my team. My hand hurts so bad. It doesn’t matter. We’re going to state now.”

Wheaton Academy, mulled going for two points and the victory after both teams had traded touchdowns in both the first and second overtime. Instead, with Chavez’ clutch effort, St. Laurence’s unexpected postseason run continues into the title game.

• Lena-Winslow found itself in very unfamiliar territory on Saturday, down two scores to Hope Academy in the middle of the third quarter.

The Panthers did manage to rally and claim a 30-28 lead early in the fourth quarter, when the game became a defensive scuffle. Lena-Winslow was only able to officially secure its fourth consecutive title game appearance by picking off a Hope Academy pass in the final minute inside its own 5-yard line.

Odds and ends

• Byron’s epic scoring pace was thrown a little bit off but, the Tigers are likely more than content to have survived and advanced by toppling Montini 26-20.

It leaves Byron with 754 points through 13 games. It’s the second highest season point total in state history but still leaves the Tigers 52 points short of breaking the current state record held by the Peoria 2016 squad that finished the season with 805 points.

Fifty-two points seems like a heavy lift for a championship, but based on the semifinal-round result, Byron’s title game opponent (Mt. Carmel) might be up for a shootout. It beat Roxana 63-48 in the semifinals in a game that had over 100 points scored midway through the third quarter.

• Nazareth has already set a few notable records in its postseason run and has the chance to set a few more, regardless of the outcome in its Class 5A title game with Joliet Catholic.

By virtue of its win over St. Francis, Nazareth becomes the first team to reach a state championship game with five losses already on its ledger. Four other teams have finished the season with five losses while playing 14 games, but only after a loss in the championship game.

If Nazareth defeats Joliet Catholic, it would become the only team in state history to win a title while losing five games. If they lose the game, they’d be the only team in state history to play a full complement of 14 games and lose six.

Nazareth set a quirky record last year by beating Peoria in the Class 5A final as it was the first team to start the season 2-4 an go on to win a state title.

Nazareth’s placement as a No. 15 seed (in a 16-team bracket) also gives it the opportunity to join a very small group. IC Catholic’s 2008 title run is the only one in state history to be completed with a win as a No. 15 seed.