One of the two combatants in the Class 4A state final, Rochester, has a roster full of players that grew up watching other versions of their school’s team battling for state championship on the regular.
On the other side, St. Laurence does not have the same experiences to draw upon. The Vikings last made a state championship game appearance well before any of its players – and some of its coaching staff – were even born.
Although the variance between the two programs is clear, there’s little doubt both have been prepared for the challenges that the state championship brings with tough schedules that featured numerous opponents from larger classifications.
Here’s a closer look at the two teams squaring off in the Class 4A at 7 p.m. Friday in Normal.
St. Laurence (10-3)
Head coach: Adam Nissen (27-23, 5 years)
Last state title game appearance: 1979, Lost to East St. Louis Lincoln, 20-14
Path to state
• defeated Vocational, 64-0
• defeated Dixon, 31-21
• defeated IC Catholic, 24-20
• defeated Wheaton Academy, 31-20
Aaron Ball, RB: A recent University of Illinois commit, Ball has fueled the St. Laurence offense all season and had bulled his way to 20 touchdowns and just under 1,500 yards rushing on the season.
Jace Chamberlain, DE: Chamberlain like many of the players in the St. Laurence front seven has a knack for getting into the opponent’s backfield, leading his team with 16 tackles for loss.
Connor Cleary, LB: Cleary is St. Laurence’s leading tackler but he isn’t only finishing off plays, he’s also breaking them up before they begin leading the Vikings with nine sacks on the season.
• .St. Laurence held six of its opponents to a touchdown or less.
• Halftime adjustments appear to work for the St. Laurence defense as it has allowed just 13 points in the third quarter all season.
• .St. Laurence had made 18 appearances in the state playoffs all 17 previous appearances have come in larger classifications than 4A.
A cursory glance at the statistics might make a state run by these Vikings seem unlikely. But there’s no statistical column for grit and this St. Laurence team seems to have it in bunches. Considering St. Laurence’s quarterfinal win over heavily favored IC Catholic was secured in the game’s final minute and its semifinal victory over Wheaton Academy was achieved in the second overtime courtesy of a blocked extra point the Vikings clearly won’t be put away without a stern fight.
Head coach: Derek Leonard (197-36, 19 seasons)
Last state title game appearance: 2019, won over St. Rita 42-28
Path to state
• defeated Lincoln, 59-14
• defeated Coal City, 45-3
• defeated Breese Central, 49-13
• defeated Murphysboro, 42-14
Nolan Mrozowski, RB: While most of the Rochester offensive attacks feature high flying passing attacks, the best of those groups usually also have a gamebreaking runner added into the mix. Mrozowski’s amassed just 110 carries on the season but averages over 10 yards a carry on those plays.
Parker Lyons, LB: The defensive unit could easily be considered the unsung hero of this Rochester bunch. Lyons is the leading tackler overall but also in tackles for loss.
Parker Gillespie, QB/DB: Gillespie is the definition of a wildcard having missed the first seven games of the season with a knee injury. His position is fluid, especially on offense, as he could find himself running, catching and passing the ball in equal parts.
• The Leonard-led Rockets have not lost more than two games in a season since 2008.
• Rochester has scored 40-plus points in every game this season minus one, a 31-21 win over Sacred Heart-Griffin, which is also the only game where an opponent has been closer than 26 points.
• The Rockets have intercepted 30 passes this season.
Rochester hasn’t been in a state championship game since 2019. This would be an ordinary ebb and flow for most strong programs but for the Rockets it feels like a lengthy drought. The typical components that define Rochester are still there in that its offense is capable of lighting up the scoreboard and using inventive ways in doing that. But the defense is a more intrical part of things this time around capable of shutting down potent offenses and lessening the burden on the offense if need be.
Rochester 38, St. Laurence 17