One strange season
Prep football 2021: A year we will remember
By Steve Metsch
High school football fans, coaches, players and reporters may disagree about which team is the best. But one thing they all agree on is that this season won’t be soon forgotten.
Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 fall season was moved to the spring of 2021. The season was limited to six games with no playoffs and no state championships.
Some teams, like Brother Rice, played all six games. Others, like Lyons Township, were limited to four thanks to positive COVID tests on their roster or the opponent’s roster.
There were games suddenly called off because of positive tests. Nazareth, for example, didn’t play anyone in Week One after Fenwick was forced to postpone. They could not find a team to play.
Marching bands were at some games, not at others. The only fans allowed at most games were family members of coaches and players. Referees wore face masks. So did reporters, photographers and many players.
Even with the craziness, there were some memorable moments. Here are the highlights from the seven games I covered over six weeks:
I’ve never seen anything like the 3 minutes and 27 seconds explosion in Joliet Catholic’s opener at Saint Laurence. The Hilltoppers scored five touchdowns en route to a 49-0 victory on March 19.
The Hilltoppers’ defense set up the first touchdown and scored the following two in a span of 20 seconds during the second quarter to blow open a 7-0 game. JCA added two more scores — also aided by its “D” — soon afterward, giving them five touchdowns in less than three-and-half-minutes.
“Really proud of our guys. Awesome job,” Joliet Catholic coach Jake Jaworski said. “They came out ready to play, fired up.”
To their credit, St. Laurence players and coaches answered each post-game question on a rough opening night.
I saw some amazing performances by players, but the big night the softspoken senior Rashaad Boles had for Reavis against Oak Lawn still impresses me. Boles scorched Oak Lawn for four touchdowns and 252 yards on just 26 carries. Yes, he averaged nearly 10 yards a carry as Reavis “Boles over” Oak Lawn, 36-12.
After the game, I asked him which TD was his favorite on March 26.
Boles preferred talking about how the Rams can improve as a team instead of his own glittering performance. As I said, impressive.
Rashaad Boles had a night of nights vs. Oak Lawn, 252 yards and four TDs on 26 carries. Photo by Steve Metsch.
On a chilly April 1 at Brother Rice, Loyola proved why it is considered the top team in the Chicago area this spring, rolling to a 28-7 victory.
Senior Vaughn Pemberton and junior Marco Maldonado each scored two touchdowns to help Loyola improve to 3-0.
Brother Rice’s junior QB Jack Lausch was the victim of two drive-killing sacks by senior lineman Brandon Svets. One lost 13 yards. The other ended the first half.
“In that situation, you can’t take a sack, can’t go backwards,” Lausch said. “It’s something I’ll learn from, and do better next time.”
More on that later.
Vaughn Pemberton, one of the best running backs in the area, scored two touchdowns at Brother Rice on April 1. Photo by Steve Metsch.
I covered two games this weekend.
In the first, on April 9, St. Francis senior quarterback Tommy Rittenhouse and junior wide receiver Tyler Bishop gave Reavis’ Boles a battle for most impressive games.
Rittenhouse threw six touchdown passes – three of them to Bishop – as St. Francis routed host Riverside-Brookfield, 58-7.
“We’ve been playing (football together) since I was in second grade, he was in third,” Bishop said. “The connection has always been there.”
It may have helped that the Bulldogs had lost eight starters since Week One, but anytime you throw six TD passes, you’re doing something right. Speaking as a Southern Illinois University graduate – and with Rittenhouse heading to Illinois State – I’m hoping the Saluki coaching staff took note even as they are busy in the FCS playoffs.
Tommy Rittenhouse threw six TD passes for St. Francis. Photo by Steve Metsch.
The second game was on April 10, a Catholic League showdown with Marist at Nazareth. Sadly, the pandemic closed the Naz grill where they make their tasty cheeseburgers.
This wasn’t the Nazareth aerial attack led by former quarterback J.J. McCarthy, who will soon be starring for Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. Nazareth Head Coach Tim Racki said early on he planned to play all his players this shortened season. It was a brilliant move. Keep the players happy, keep their parents happy and – perhaps best of all – see what he has in preparation for what we hope is a full nine-game season this fall.
The Roadrunners, who for several years scored touchdowns with ease, were shut out by Marist, 13-0. Jimmy Rolder made two big interceptions – one at the goal-line – and Jamari Grant scored two touchdowns for an impressive Marist team. There was also a questionable late hit, but more on that later.
It’s not often a defensive lineman leads a football story, but Lyons senior Ryan Hatter, Jr., blocked a punt and forced a safety to spark a 22-3 win over Downers Grove North on April 16 in Western Springs.
Senior Rafeon Kloes had a big game. He caught a 62-yard touchdown pass and returned a kickoff 63 yards to set up a key touchdown for Lyons.
With junior quarterback Joey Antonietti tossing two touchdowns, along with being a threat running the ball, it is a good bet Head Coach Jon Beutjer is already drawing up plays for September. With a high school football legend like Beutjer at the helm , this will be a very interesting fall season for Antonietti and the Lions.
Lyons’ Ryan Hatter, Jr., started a win over Downers Grove North by blocking a punt and chasing the ball out of the end-zone for a safety. Photo by Steve Metsch.
My season ended with a classic Catholic League showdown: Mount Carmel at Brother Rice on Friday night.
Jack Lausch – remember him from Week Three? – did show improvement. He was cool under pressure and led his team – along with senior RB Willie Shaw – to a 20-13 victory. They each scored a touchdown as Brother Rice defeated the 2019 state champion Caravan. Lausch ran for 122 yards while Shaw added 167.
It was an inspired effort by the Crusaders, the kind you dream about as a coach. Mount Carmel at times looked baffled on offense. The Caravan was held to 59 yards rushing. They normally do that in one series.
The University of Toledo Rockets can’t wait to have Shaw run the football. Let’s face it, not all the Crusaders will play college ball. For many, this was it. And they delivered in a big way.
Oh, about that late hit in the Marist-Nazareth game … A Marist kid, around their 20-yard line, hit a Nazareth receiver late. He also hit me, maybe 10 or 15 feet off the sideline, just below the left knee. I went down like a ton of bricks. It hurt like heck.My knee doctor a few days later diagnosed a “deep bone bruise.” No ligament damage.
I thank Nazareth AD Dennis Moran and an assistant coach who helped me to the bench, where the team doctor had a look-see. He found “no structural damage” and I resumed covering the game.
After the hit, the Marist kid said nary a word. The Nazareth player retrieved my digitial recorder – a great way to keep notes in the rain – and asked if I was okay.
I sent an e-mail to Coach Racki about the kind gesture. Racki sent me back an e-mail, saying he was proud of his player. Racki also noted “despite being hit hard, you did your job and finished the game. You can play on my team anytime.”
That note made a memorable season even more special.
SO WHO IS BEST?
I saw 13 teams – Brother Rice twice – play in seven games over six weeks. Lots of great players. Very good coaches.
The best team I saw was Loyola (6-0). They are tough on offense and defense. And they suit up a lot of players.
Joliet Catholic, always a force, also went 6-0. Never, ever take the Hilltoppers lightly.
I didn’t see Lincoln-Way East, Warren, Hinsdale Central, Huntley, Barrington, Antioch or Lake Forest. They all went 6-0. Crete-Monee (6-0) won its conference. Didn’t see them play.
But I did see St. Francis (6-0). And I would love to cover a game pitting the aerial attack of St. Francis vs. the impressive ground game of Loyola. Loyola would probably be favored, but it would be a ton of fun to cover that showdown.
See you in the autumn, when I hope we have a full nine-game season with bands, packed stands, tailgating, cheerleaders, pom-pons, concession stands, playoffs and state championship games played in DeKalb. The first games are scheduled for Aug. 27, just four months away.
Hopefully, the good people at Nazareth will be allowed to once again fire up their grill for those delicious cheeseburgers.