A wild round of semifinal games provided a number of fascinating matchups for state championship weeks. I can’t wait to get things started Friday morning in DeKalb.
Class 1A picks to date: 22-8
Class 2A picks to date: 29-1
Class 3A picks to date: 25-5
Class 4A picks to date: 25-5
Class 5A picks to date: 23-7
Class 6A picks to date: 25-5
Class 7A picks to date: 23-7
Class 8A picks to date: 21-9
Total picks to date: 193-47 (.804)
Lena-Winslow (11-2) vs. Carrollton (12-1): It’s not surprising to see a NUIC team in the Class 1A title game. Lena-Winslow has certainly been a frequent visitor to the title game in recent seasons. Carrollton also comes from a strong conference, the Western Illinois Valley Conference, and the Hawks have beaten some real titans of the Class 1A ranks in order to reach DeKalb. Although Lena-Winslow didn’t necessarily put up robust numbers in its semifinal win over upstart Ridgeview, it’s really hard to pick against the Panthers here. Their track record alone in recent season make the Panthers the favorite.
Pick: Lena-Winslow 32, Carrollton 28
Wilmington (13-0) vs. Nashville (12-1): Wilmington has been absolutely dominant heading through the Class 2A bracket, which was somewhat expected as the Wildcats dropped down from the 3A ranks where they have experienced more than their fair share of postseason success. Wilmington’s ground-based attack has always been potent, but it seems as if it has dropped into yet another more impressive gear this time around. It’s been so effective that the Wildcats have attempted just a solitary pass through four postseason contests. Nashville’s march through the playoffs has been very impressive. The Hornets have been forced into ousting three consecutive undefeated teams just to reach DeKalb. To make it four in a row, they’ll need a huge effort from their defense as no postseason opponent has held Wilmington under 40 points.
Pick: Wilmington 41, Nashville 36
Byron (13-0) vs. Tolono Unity (13-0): The only one of the eight championship games that features a pair of undefeated teams vying for the crown. Byron has been incredibly clutch during this postseason run, winning each of its last two games in the final 10 seconds of regulation. That’s what teams that have made three consecutive state title games tend to do. Tolono Unity has been very workman like in maneuvering its way through the draw. The Rockets have also shown a propensity to do exactly what they need to do to survive and advance.
Pick: Byron 25, Tolono Unity 20
Joliet Catholic (13-0) vs. Sacred Heart-Griffin (12-1): The scoreboard operator might be pretty busy in this one as both teams have extremely potent offenses. Joliet Catholic’s offense hasn’t been stopped much at all, and it’s usually by the Hilltoppers’ own hand when it does scuffle. Turnovers have been an issue at times and in some cases are the only things keeping opponents remotely close. Sacred Heart-Griffin might be one of the very few teams in the state that might be best suited to just try and outrace the Joliet Catholic. It’s usually not the best path for most Joliet Catholic foes, but in Sacred Heart-Griffin’s case asking it to do something else might be too much of a deviation from its usual attack plan.
Pick: Joliet Catholic 45, Sacred Heart-Griffin 39
Fenwick (11-2) vs. Kankakee (13-0): There’s some interesting parallels between these two first-time state championship qualifiers, both had only reached the semifinal round once in their school’s history prior to this season, each losing by one point in those contests. This one looks like a pretty electric matchup with both teams having some explosive players on both sides of the football. Fenwick has been pretty consistent over the second half of the year and its ability to grind out possessions and net points might give it a very slight edge over Kankakee, which has shown a propensity to break big plays whenever it needs them. But it becomes harder to do on a regular basis as the level of competition increases.
Pick: Fenwick 28, Kankakee 26
Cary-Grove (13-0) vs. East St. Louis (11-2): This is exactly the Class 6A matchup most expected to happen when the pairings were released. And while many believe East St. Louis is the best team in Illinois regardless of class, there’s plenty of reasons to believe that Cary-Grove is ready and prepared to make a strong play for the Class 6A throne. While East St. Louis is as explosive as any team around, it has also shown a propensity to make some mistakes along the way, particularly in the area of costly penalties negating big plays. The Flyers usually make another highlight play shortly there after to patch over the error, but counting on that to continue against an extremely disciplined Cary-Grove team might not be the best of ideas. Cary-Grove has put together a path of destruction in each of its four playoff games, forcing the running clock in each. The Trojans are dangerous, and if the Flyers make the mistake of looking past that and believing that talent alone is enough to get them by here, they could be in for a real fight.
Pick: East St. Louis 46, Cary-Grove 42
Wheaton North (12-1) vs. St. Rita (11-2): Wheaton North has shown an ability to transform into whatever it needs to be in order to keep advancing. In the quarterfinals, the Falcons emerged from a defensive scrum. A week later, they flexed their offensive muscles against a team that had showcased plenty of that during the regular season in Brother Rice. St. Rita has also shown a capability of being a flexible squad. Playing without standout running back Kaleb Brown for almost the entire regular season, it found other ways to get the job done. With Brown now back, St. Rita is as dynamic as it was expected to be all season and then some.
Pick: St. Rita 34, Wheaton North 28
Lockport (12-1) vs. Maine South (12-1): Lockport has emerged as a dangerous team on both sides of the football at exactly the right time. Early in the season, the defense was clearly carrying the Porters, but now the offense is also sharing its part of the load. All-state QB Hayden Timosciek didn’t play in the Porters’ lone loss of the season against Lincoln-Way East, but since his return Lockport has blended a passing attack with the running of Ty Schultz to formulate a powerful attack. Maine South, meanwhile, is showing its postseason pedigree once again. The Hawks have been in a number of close games in the postseason but have always found a way. That’s easier to do with running back Mike Sajenko on their side, who turned in a five-touchdown performance against Marist in the semifinals.
Pick: Lockport 21, Maine South 17