It seemed fitting that arguably the biggest regular season game of the season was one of the last to go final Saturday.
Mount Carmel outlasted Loyola 42-37 in a battle of undefeated teams from the strongest conference in the state in a contest that almost everyone would like to see a rekindling of in the postseason. We won’t get that chance, however, as the schools are in different postseason classifications (Mount Carmel in Class 7A, Loyola in 8A).
Let’s take a look at some of the biggest storylines of Week 9:
The CCL/ESCC factors heavily in shape of things
The last bid secured in the 256-team field by virtue of a victory was St. Viator.
Facing a showdown game with a fellow 4-4 team, St. Patrick, the Lions managed to score a 24-21 victory to become the 255th team in the state to achieve its fifth victory of the season while effectively eliminating St. Patrick from postseason consideration.
It seemed almost destined for two of this league’s teams to play an elimination game just to get into the postseason. Thirteen of the league’s 22 teams did manage to qualify for the playoffs, but just one of them got through the gauntlet unscathed (Mount Carmel) and only one finished with just one loss (Loyola). Every other team in the league had at least two losses, largely coming at the hands of other fellow conference members.
Four teams just missed the five-win standard (Benet, St. Patrick, Marian Catholic and Marmion). All four looked worthy of playoff berths and probably would have gotten there had their schedules been a little more forgiving.
Eight of the league’s 22 schools finished in the top 20 strongest schedules in the state. Marist topped the list of CCL/ESCC schools at No. 3 behind Buffalo Grove and Fremd on the list. Mount Carmel (No. 6), Brother Rice (No. 8) and St. Patrick (No. 9) were all in the Top 10.
The league is scheduled for expansion as St. Francis, IC Catholic and Aurora Central Catholic are joining the fray and the two-year realignment is also scheduled for its divisions of play, and orchestrating a fair way to divide this behemoth looks nearly impossible.
Final week shakeups
While it may not have been as eventful as last year’s Week 9, when a large number of upsets changed the landscape of the postseason field, there were still plenty of intriguing factors.
Twenty-eight teams entered the final week of the season with 4-4 records and facing opponents with better records. Four fought their way into the field: Chicago Christian, Lisle, Rockford Lutheran and Flora. That quartet all claimed spots in the smallest three classifications, which pushed bubble teams in each classification into the larger classification option.
Conversely, just two teams ( Burlington Central and Sullivan) were 4-4 teams playing with an opponent with a record of below .500 in Week 9 and failed to make the field.
A lot of discussion was given to the possibility of Sacred Heart Griffin and other strongholds like Simeon, Prairie Ridge or Morris possibly sliding into a smaller classification, but the introduction of those four smaller schools to the mix eliminated that as a viable option.
Those last week surprise entrants also nearly closed the window on teams with four victories on the season earning an at-large bid. In the end, just one school (Buffalo Grove) received entrance into the 256-team field as a 4-5 team.
4-5 teams have qualified for the postseason before, but only as automatic bid teams as conference champions. Buffalo Grove is the first team in history to earn entrance into the IHSA playoffs as a 4-5 at-large team.
Prior to back-to-back weeks of surprise results from smaller schools in the potential draw, it looked as if more 4-5′s might be needed to fill the field. In the end, St. Patrick, Barrington and Oak Park-River Forest were the closest to earning qualification via this route before ultimately being denied berths.
The actual release of the pairings was delayed for some time because of the outcome of one game between two teams that were not playoff bound. The Proviso West and Proviso East game got a very late start and then was slowly considerably by an injury delay.
While neither of the two teams would play in Week 10, the outcome mattered to every team that had either one of them on the schedule with playoff point situations being so close in many classifications.
Most notable of those was the possibly that of Glenbard West and Loyola being tied in the 8A draw for the No. 5 seed, until Proviso West earned the 34-26 victory to give the Hilltoppers another playoff point and a way to separate themselves from Loyola in the seed stack.
Another Saturday afternoon game that caused a bit of a ripple was Eastland-Pearl City’s win over Chester, which was already playoff bound. EPC was not playing for a playoff spot, finishing 3-6, but its win afforded all of its NUIC brethren an extra playoff point, which shuffled the bottom of the 1A north bracket as multiple teams were locked up or within one point of one another.
Defending the crowns
Seven of the eight state champions will have a chance to defend their state championship achieved from a year ago.
Most will attack from familiar high seed lines, such as Lena-Winslow from the No. 1 seed spot in the north bracket of 1A. Wilmington (No. 3 seed, 2A North), Byron (No. 6 seed, 3A North), Joliet Catholic (No. 4 seed, 4A North) and Wheaton North (No. 6 seed, 7A 32-team draw) are all operating from fairly high spots.
Two of the defending champs, Lockport and Fenwick, enter their defense as it least from a seeding perspective, as underdogs. Lockport is the No. 28 seed in 8A, rekindling a second-round matchup from its title march last year in playing Glenbard West, while Fenwick is slotted in as the No. 15 seed in 5A north locking horns with Morgan Park in the opening round.
The lone state champion not to qualify for the playoffs was last year’s Class 6A champion, Cary-Grove. The Trojans finished 3-6, failing to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2003.