DeKALB — Fenwick coach Matt Battaglia wanted to make sure his players were loose before their biggest game of the season.
Battaglia had the team buses stop at the DeKalb oasis just before the Friars arrived at their Class 5A title game on Saturday morning. The players had been sleeping on the drive over and Battaglia wanted his players energized, so he told them to go crazy for 10 minutes outside where the temperature was in the 20s.
“You’ve got to stay on your toes around me,” Battaglia said.
That is the coaching style Battaglia likes to use with his players to keep them loose throughout a long year and it worked when Fenwick won its first state title in program history on Saturday.
“That shows what kind of coach he is and how much he really cares about the players,” Max Reese said. “He’s a great guy. He’s very extreme.”
Battaglia and players like to use tricks throughout the season to keep each other loose. The Fenwick coach thought his players played too tight during the playoffs and weren’t playing as explosively as they could, so he decided to loosen things up at practice.
He started each practice with a game that involved the offensive linemen trying to hit the field goal crossbar with passes. The players said it was a good way to mix things up, something that the coach has done all season.
While the Friars had remained focused each week, they knew when to have fun with each other, the perfect combination for winning a state championship.
“We took practice very serious, but we still had fun with everyone,” quarterback Kaden Cobb said. “It was our last one together. We made sure we had time to lock in. Everyone was doing their job in practice and by the time the game came, everyone was flowing.”
All in the family
Joliet Catholic’s Class 4A state title win on Friday not only built on a long tradition of success at the program. For some players, it continued family success.
Senior Ian Williams heard from his dad all the time about how he was an All-State honorable mention player and won a state championship with the program. So when Williams came to Joliet Catholic, he had motivation to work hard in order match or improve on those accolades.
That hard work paid off on Friday night when Williams helped lead the Hilltopppers to their 15th state title.
“Ever since I got into high school, I put my head down and got to work in the weight room, speed training,” Williams said. “Now I’m a state champion too.”
Vinny Iannantone had big shoes to fill when he came to Joliet Catholic after his brother Nick had been an important part of the program, winning a state title in 2018 where he rushed for 318 yards and three touchdowns.
Vinny finished Friday’s game with 127 rushing yards and two touchdowns, adding onto a 468-yard day for the Hilltoppers rushing crew. He finished the season with more rushing yards than his brother had in a season, which only made Friday’s victory even better.
“It feels good. Nick always told me I was better at football,” Vinny said laughing. “It’s good enough to be able to prove it because it’s a great feeling.”
St. Rita entered the Class 7A title game with all the momentum players and coaches could ask.
The Mustangs found ways to score the ball both offensively and defensively and entered Saturday’s championship game averaging 37 points in the four playoff games. But against Wheaton North, the offense only scored six points, a season low.
“They did everything we talked about at practice, we just missed some opportunities and didn’t take advantage of the weaknesses they had,” quarterback Tommy Ulatowski said. “Everything they showed us, we knew heading in. We just didn’t execute.”
St. Rita started the game strong by completing long drives to Wheaton North’s red zone, but the Mustangs couldn’t get in the end zone and missed both field goal tries, taking away any momentum the team had to start.
Ulatowski scored the team’s lone touchdown in the third quarter when he rushed in 10 yards for the score, but that was the lone drive St. Rita could sustain in the game. The Falcons’ goal was to limit the Mustangs’ Kaleb Brown, who finished with 20 rushing yards and 128 receiving. St. Rita as a team finished with 29 rushing yards
“I feel like everything was there,” Brown said. “We just didn’t come out on top. We made a lot of big plays, we marched it down the field. Honestly, we just couldn’t finish.”