JOLIET – Even though Joliet Catholic Academy lost the services of running backs Jordan Anderson and Vinny Iannantone , among others, from last year’s Class 4A state championship team, don’t expect the Hilltoppers to be in rebuilding mode this season.
JCA doesn’t rebuild, it reloads.
Running behind Northwestern commit Anthony Birsa and a big but inexperienced offensive line, the Hilltoppers – who lost 16 of the 22 starters from last season’s championship team to graduation – figure to be in contention for another deep playoff run as the 2022 season officially began Monday with teams around the state taking to the practice field.
“That 2021 championship is ours,” Jaworski said. “It belongs to the kids that were on that team. We don’t look at it as defending a state championship. This group is pursuing a state championship of their own.”
The Hilltoppers won’t be lacking in championship experience, whether from the football field or other arenas of competition. Several members of the football team played for this spring’s Class 2A baseball champions, more were members of JCA’s Class 2A dual team state wrestling squad and one, running back Brett Mouw, was part of the state bass fishing championship team.
“These kids all compete,” Jaworski said. “We worked with their baseball and wrestling coaches to share their time over the summer, and during the summer we never really had our whole team together. It’s great that starting today we are all together as a team, and we can start building toward where we want to be.”
That, of course, is in Champaign on Thanksgiving weekend.
The offense will start with guard Birsa, a 6-foot-5, 270-pound lineman.
“It was nice to get my college commitment out of the way before the season,” Birsa said. “Now, I can just go out and play football. I think we will be pretty good this year, and we are excited to get started for real.
“The biggest thing for me is that I am excited to be a leader. I was the only junior on the offensive line last year. This year, I am the only starter coming back, so I will be the leader. Now it’s for real, and it’s full go.”
The Hilltoppers’ offense lost a majority of its production as Anderson, Iannantone, fullback Ryan Louthan, quarterback Aidan Voss and receiver Jake Fieldman all graduated, but the cupboard isn’t bare.
Jaworski said that he sees the carries being distributed between Mouw, junior Aaron Harvey, junior H.J. Grigsby, who already has a college offer from Central Michigan, and fullback Hunter Powell, who also will see time on the defensive line. Justin Bonsu, who has a couple of Division I offers, will be the main wide receiver, but Jaworski said he could also move to wing back at times to get him more touches.
Running the show under center will be senior QB T.J. Schlageter, who was the Hilltoppers’ ace on the mound in the spring and recently committed to play baseball at Louisville, along with linebacker Trey Swiderski.
“T.J. has a big arm, for sure,” Jaworski said. “He learned a lot from Aidan Voss last year, and he is one of the most competitive kids we have. There was a game last year against Benet where Aidan got hurt, and we were down a couple of scores, but T.J. came in and led us to a win.
“He really keeps his cool, and he is level-headed, but he also holds kids accountable. We saw that over the summer. If someone isn’t doing what they should, he will get on them, so he is a vocal leader, too.”
The rest of the offensive line will consist of 6-6, 300-pound senior tackle Angelo Fasano, senior center Justin Stockman (5-11, 315) and sophomore Cameron Juricich (6-5, 285) at the other tackle, with senior Grayson Frangella (6-2, 275) and junior Brady McKeon (6-2, 240) battling for the other guard spot.
The defense will be anchored by one of the top lines anywhere. Besides Powell, the defensive front will feature seniors Jeremy Johnson (6-3, 200), Billy Burke (6-3, 250) and junior Dillan Johnson (6-2, 270), who went undefeated in becoming the Class 2A 285-pound individual wrestling champion.
“Jeremy Johnson had double-digit sacks and double-digit tackles for loss last year,” Jaworski said. “And Dillan Johnson is so quick and uses his wrestling background so well that he is almost unblockable. They all have a lot of experience, and they are throwback type of kids. They are tough as nails and mean and nasty. They will definitely anchor our defense and take a lot of the pressure off of our back seven.
“They are one of the best defensive lines around and going against them every day will only make our offensive line better. We have to remind the guys on the offensive line that what they see in practice every day is probably the best defensive line they will go against all year.”
After winning its state-record 15th championship last fall, the Hilltoppers are no strangers to having a target on their backs.
“There’s always a target on us,” Jaworski said. “That comes with playing for JCA. We are more about the process. If we get the process right, the rest will take care of itself.
“The exciting thing for us is that a lot of these guys got to witness last year what it takes to play at a championship level for 14 weeks. We’re excited for another season of JCA football.”