I’ve often trumpeted that the semifinal round of the IHSA State Playoffs is the weekend that brings the most intrigue, even more so than the state championship games.
And this year’s installment certainly provided plenty of evidence to support that theory. Several games came down to the wire, top seeds and heavy favorites fell, and no one can claim they predicted all 16 of the teams that will be playing in DeKalb this weekend.
A sensational semifinal weekend definitely lived up to the hype. It remains to be seen if the final weekend of state can provide a fitting encore.
CCL/ESCC freight train slowed down
Heading into the weekend, it looked like the CCL/ESCC might be in the position to have the largest contingent of teams to reach state final games in the history of the IHSA’s playoff system.
But the sledding wasn’t as smooth for CCL/ESCC teams in the semifinal round as it had been in the first three rounds. Only three CCL/ESCC teams will be playing in state finals as St. Rita (Class 7A), Fenwick (Class 5A) and Joliet Catholic (Class 4A) were the only survivors of a group of six league teams that had a path to those final games.
St. Rita was the only team of the three that didn’t have a really rigorous test to make the finals as it eased past Prospect. Fenwick had to grind out its win over Sycamore, and it took a lot for Joliet Catholic to finally end Richmond-Burton’s state-best 32 game winning streak. The Rockets successfully played keep away from the Hilltoppers for much of the game before succumbing.
Joliet Catholic now has the state’s longest winning streak of 19 games without a loss, while Wilmington and Tolono Unity also haven’t lost a game since 2019. They each played fewer games in the 2021 spring season and are one win (18) behind the Hilltoppers streak-wise.
For the second consecutive weekend, Byron’s fate hung in the balance during the final 10 seconds of the game.
And for the second consecutive week, the Tigers found a way to stay alive.
The semifinal win seemed even more in doubt than Byron’s heartstopping win over Reed-Custer in the quarterfinals. Byron trailed, 14-0, late in the fourth quarter, but the Tigers scored a touchdown to close to with 14-7 at the 3:45 mark of the game and then recovered an onside kick to get another chance.
Despite the seconds ticking away, Byron’s methodical offense didn’t waver from what it does best. It crept down the field using 14 plays before being faced with a fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line with 5 seconds to play. The Tigers handed the ball to Chandler Binkley, who got into the end zone. Binkley used essentially the same play to get the 2-point conversion as well as to stun IC Catholic and send Byron to its third consecutive state championship game.
It was the second consecutive weekend Byron has secured its victory in the final 10 seconds of the game.
More fantastic finishes
Nashville’s postseason mojo is a thing, and it shouldn’t be ignored.
The Hornets will be making their second consecutive title game appearance because they always seem to find a way to get the job done.
Favored Decatur St. Teresa opened a two-touchdown lead early in the fourth quarter and appeared on its way to the title game. But Nashville punched in a score to close the gap to 35-28 with six minutes to play in the game, recovered an onside kick and marched down the field to score again.
Nashville missed the conversion, and the Hornets still trailed, 35-34. They promptly recovered another onside kick, marched down the field and booted a 26-yard field goal with just less than 4 seconds to play in the game to secure their place in DeKalb.
Chasing the undefeated dream
Only six teams have the chance to complete their season without a loss.
Wilmington (Class 2A), Byron and Tolono Unity (Class 3A), Joliet Catholic (Class 4A), Kankakee (Class 5A) and Cary-Grove (Class 6A) are the only teams that can finish 14-0.
And while six teams being undefeated at this stage is a lower number than most years, it’s not like the collective field has a series of losses to sort through. All 16 teams remaining in the postseason have a combined record of 194-14.
The lowest seed to make championship week in a 32-team bracket was 10th-seeded St. Rita in Class 7A.
A pair of No. 6 seeds, Nashville in Class 2A and Lena-Winslow in Class 1A, were the lowest seeds to reach title games in 16-team brackets.