Millar: From Wilmington’s win to HJ Grigsby’s heart, a memorable championship weekend for Joliet-area teams

The Wilmington Wildcats celebrate their 28-3 win over Athens Friday, Nov. 24, 2023 in the 2A state football championship game at Hancock Stadium in Normal.

Wilmington firmly established itself as a dynasty. Things did not end as well for Joliet Catholic and Lincoln-Way East, but the resiliency of both was on abundant display.

A busy weekend for the Herald-News area resulted in one win, two losses and countless memorable moments at the state championship football games.

I was there to watch it all play out in Normal. Here is some of what stood out to me.

Simply the best

Wilmington coach Jeff Reents summed up his team’s style of play succinctly following the Wildcats’ 28-3 win over Athens in Friday’s Class 2A state championship game.

“We’re not fancy,” Reents said.

The Wildcats certainly are not. What they are, however, is the epitome of a successful small-school football program.

Wilmington executes its game plan to perfection, working hard for 3 or 4 yards at a time in the running game. Defensively, the Wildcats are as solid as it gets and don’t make mistakes.

Junior running back Kyle Farrell kept pounding his way up the middle, fighting for hard yards again and again as he piled up 24 carries. Then he broke free for a 78-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, and the celebration was just about on.

Farrell deserved that moment and Wilmington – a town that loyally and passionately supports its high school football team – deserves the success.

It’s Wilmington’s second state championship in three years and third in the past decade. That, I hereby proclaim, is a dynasty. One that Reents and his staff have spent 30 years building.

“They’re all good,” Reents said of the three titles. “It’s something that, I’ll be honest, 30 years ago when I took the job over, you always say to yourself, ‘Can we get there?’ This is our program’s fourth time getting here and third title, and that’s tremendous.

“What was great after the game was seeing a lot of ex-players in the stands. I got a lot of texts from ex-players saying, ‘You played football the Wildcat way. We couldn’t be prouder of you Coach, and please tell the players we’re proud of them.’

“That’s the goal as a coach to try to bring that family not just for a one-year deal, but for as long as you can.”

The Wilmington family has a lot to be proud of.

Joliet Catholic's HJ Grigsby finds a hole in the Nazareth defense and runs for a touchdown Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023, during their IHSA Class 5A state championship game in Hancock Stadium at Illinois State University in Normal.

Heart of a champion

HJ Grigsby was on track to have the game of his life. The Joliet Catholic senior running back piled up 223 rushing yards in the first half of Saturday’s Class 5A championship game against Nazareth.

But Grigsby injured his ankle late in the second quarter, saying after the game about his pain level that, “Out of 10, it was probably an 11.”

Grigsby gave no thought to sitting out the second half, however.

“I knew I was coming back,” Grigsby said. “Back in 2018, we had a running back, Keenan Hailey, who broke his ankle and came back and played. I thought about him and how he had heart for his team, and that’s what I wanted to do.

“I was like, ‘I’m coming back. I don’t care about the pain.’ ”

Grigsby came back and ran for 55 more yards in the second half. But the explosiveness he showed in the first half was clearly limited, and the Hilltoppers struggled on both sides of the ball. Nazareth rallied for a 38-20 win.

In hindsight, maybe the Hilltoppers were better off switching up the offensive game plan a bit after Grigsby’s injury. I got the feeling that Joliet Catholic coach Jake Jaworski felt that way after the game.

But I can’t blame the coaching staff for wanting to live or die with their best player carrying the ball. And I admire Grigsby’s determination. He certainly left it all on the field.

Grigsby, who ran for more than 1,700 yards this season, said he was considering several offers from FCS schools, including the one whose field he played on Saturday, Illinois State, but was keeping the door open for any bigger schools that might want to come calling after his championship-game performance.

“I think I showed that I’m a hard worker and a leader, and I was playing for my team, coming back from an injury,” Grigsby said. “It’s bigger than me.”

Grigsby showed all that and more. If I were a college coach, I’d be picking up the phone.

Lincoln-Way East head coach Rob Zvonar during the game against Loyola in the Class 8A championship on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023 at Hancock Stadium in Normal.

All in the family

The biggest highlight in Lincoln-Way East’s 26-15 loss to Loyola in the Class 8A championship game came when tight end Trey Zvonar made an acrobatic catch in the corner of the end zone, barely getting his foot down in bounds for a 2-yard touchdown on a fourth-down pass from Braden Tischer.

Trey’s dad, Griffins coach Rob Zvonar, missed it all live.

“I didn’t see it,” Rob Zvonar said. “I was trying to get [the defensive players] together, and I heard he had a lucky catch. So we’ll talk about that later.”

Zvonar’s three sons – juniors Trey and Tyson and freshman Colton – will be back next season to make more family memories.

And who would pick against the Zvonar crew and the rest of the Griffins being back in Normal on Thanksgiving weekend next year?

I certainly would not.