For openers, Princeton and St. Bede will play at home

The Princeton Tigers and St. Bede Bruins are bringing the 2021 playoffs openers home.

The Tigers (8-1), ranked No. 6 in 3A, will welcome Popular Grove North Boone (5-4) to “The Jungle” for the second straight postseason (there was none in 2020). The Tigers beat the Vikings 61-26 in the 2019 opener.

Tiger coach Ryan Pearson said while it’s pretty stressful to have such a short turnaround to prepare for a first-round opponent, he wouldn’t trade it for anything.

PHS is making school history by reaching the playoffs for the third straight year for the first time. The Tigers reached the quarterfinals in 2018 and semifinals in 2019, both ending in defeat to Byron.

The only other time PHS made consecutive appearances was in 2002 (semifinals) and 2003 (first round).

The Bruins (7-2) are back in the playoffs for the first time in five years and happy to be there. They will host Chicago Hope Academy in a Class 1A opener at the Academy gridiron.

“It’s new for us. We had a great time at the playoff party with everybody at the Brady house. It’s just fun,” St. Bede coach Jim Eustice said. “Princeton’s used to this. It’s new for us. Five years ago we were in there with Bryant (Eustice) and (Braidy) Shipp and the boys. It’s just new for us. We’re just having fun.

“The moms and dads were happy. It’s just fun to sit back and see all the smiles.”

Kickoff is 7 p.m., Friday for both games.

Hope Academy (6-3) at St. Bede (7-2)

It’s been a fruitful calendar year for the Bruins, standing 12-3, including a 5-1 spring campaign. They hope to carry that success over to the postseason, their first round since reaching the second round in 2A in 2016.

“It could end Friday or it could end five weeks from now. We’re excited,” Eustice said.

Hope Academy plays an independent schedule, losing to the only two playoff teams it faced - Kankakee (56-20) and Ottawa Marquette (62-42). The Eagles have only beat one team (Melrose Park Walter Christian) with as many as three wins with two wins over 2-7 teams and another over a winless team.

The Eagles have an explosive offense, averaging 34.2 ppg while allowing just 15.7.

“They’re very athletic. We’ve just got to do what we do,” Eustice said.

Hope Academy coach Christopher Mallette said it’s been a trying year for the Eagles on and off the field, but they are keeping the faith and are excited for the opportunity to make the trip to St. Bede.

“Chicago Hope Academy has battled through much adversity through the beginning of the 2021 season. Outside of COVID challenges and precautions many of our players have had to deal with tremendous loss,” he said. “We have endured by leaning on our seniors and our faith in God: We are grateful to have made the playoffs and look forward to the many challenges presented in facing an historic program and a talented St. Bede team.

The Bruins offense got a huge boost in Week 8 with the unexpected return of senior running back Luke Story, who had shoulder surgery after being hurt in the spring season. He had planned to sit out and concentrate on getting ready for basketball and baseball, Eustice said.

“He saw what we were doing and said, ‘I want to play, I want to play.’ For us, wow! How often do you get an all-conference player back in Week 8?” Eustice said. “We’ve been trying to find a running game besides our quarterback (John Brady) the whole year.”

The Bruins went 4-2 in the TRAC East, placing third. They beat three playoffs teams - Erie-Prophetstown (15-13), Newman (13-7) and Mendota (33-15) while losing to two playoff teams - Kewanee (51-27) and Princeton (47-20).

The winner of the St. Bede-Hope game would meet the winner between No. 4 Rushville (7-2) and No. 13 Colfax Ridgeview (5-4). The Bruins would travel to Rushville and host Ridgeview in the second round.

The Bruins have outscored their opponents 223-173 (24.8 to 19.2).

Poplar Grove North Boone (5-4) at Princeton (8-1)

The Vikings took the same path to make the playoffs as they did in 2019 - winning their final three games by defeating Rock Falls, Winnebago and Oregon in Big Northern Conference play.

Also, like 2019, they finished fifth in the Big Northern, which is sending five teams to the playoffs, including undefeated Byron, the No. 1 seed in the northern bracket.

“They play out of the Big Northern Conference, which is a very, very tough conference to play in. When you come out of the Big Northern Conference, you’re going to be battle tested,” Tiger coach Ryan Pearson said “It’s certainly nice to be at home. I think we’re pretty tough at home. Getting opportunity to be at home is certainly a huge positive for us.”

The Tigers have not lost since its Week 5, fall at Kewanee, 49-21, defeating Newman, Bureau Valley and Monmouth-Rosevlle at home and St. Bede on the road, by a combined scored of 192-54 (48 to 13.5).

On the year, the Tigers have outscored their opponents 390-137 (43.3 to 15.2), scoring 41 points or more in every game except the Mendota and Kewanee games.

While the Vikings have a new coach from their last trip here in 2019 with former assistant Ryan Kelley, who took over this spring now at the helm, things won’t be much different.

“They do a lot of the same things you saw here in ‘19. You’re going to see a gamut of different formations,” Pearson said. “They’re going to chuck it all over the field. “Their quarterback (Chandler Alderman) is a big strong, kid. He’s a southpaw and just sits back there and flings it.

“One receiver, No. 5 (Will Doetch), had over 700 yards this spring and over 1,100 this year with (82) receptions. It’s outrageous when you look at our area stats. There’s nobody that’s even close.”

Pearson said it’s always exciting to play different teams outside of your conference in the playoffs, because of the unknown that comes along with the task at hand.

“We know a little bit about them, just because we played them in ‘19, but at the same time, they have a bunch of brand new kids,” he said. They’re trying to do what we do, and get their best kids the football. We’re going to have to play fundamental pass defense and limit their big plays, because boy they can break them off in chunks.”

Kelley said the Vikings will have to be be prepared for many things, noting the talents of Tiger quarterback Teegan Davis (824 yards, 14 TDs rushing/, 1,440/17 TDs passing) “a true dual threat guy,” and linebacker Drew Harp.

“It helps a little bit having played them two years ago in the fact we know who they are as a program and we have played in that environment before,” Kelley said. “Coach Pearson has built a great program and we have a lot of respect for him. Their offense looks very different than it did two years ago, though.”

The Vikings, who went 4-0 this spring, have outscored their opponents 244-200 (27.1 to 22.2).

Friday’s winner feeds into the No. 13 Chicago King (6-3) at No. 7 Fairbury Prairie Central (7-2) game which PHS would host Prairie Central, but travel to King in the second round with a win.