High school football notes: Marengo coach commends seniors; plus news on Prairie Ridge, Crystal Lake South

Marengo's Zac Brandt (right) celebrates with Aaron Shepard after Shepard's interception in the third quarter of a Class 4A playoff game against Chicago Urban Prep/Bronzeville on Saturday at Gately Stadium in Chicago. The Indians won, 41-6.
Marengo's Zac Brandt (right) celebrates with Aaron Shepard after Shepard's interception in the third quarter of a Class 4A playoff game against Chicago Urban Prep/Bronzeville on Saturday at Gately Stadium in Chicago. The Indians won, 41-6.

When a football team finishes with a 2-7 record one year, an encouraging step the next year would be having a winning record or making the playoffs.

Marengo has traveled well beyond that point.

The No. 5-seeded Indians recorded their second lopsided victory in the Class 4A playoffs, defeating No. 4 Chicago Urban Prep/Bronzeville, 41-6, Saturday at Gately Stadium to advance to the quarterfinals.

Going from two or fewer wins to the quarterfinals the next season is something no area team had accomplished in 13 years. The last area team to pull it off was Richmond-Burton, which was 1-8 in 2004, then 10-2 and a Class 4A quarterfinalist in 2005 under former coach J. Randy Hofman.

Huntley pulled it off a few years before that, going 1-8 in 2000, then reaching the Class 4A semifinals with a 10-3 team in 2001. Coincidentally, Mike Slattery was part of both of those turnaround teams, as Huntley’s head coach and R-B’s offensive coordinator. Slattery is an assistant on current Huntley coach Matt Zimolzak’s staff.

The Indians had the right pieces coming back, with some experienced players, quarterback Travis Knaak back for another season in second-year coach Paul Forsythe’s program and running back Finn Schirmer, one of the top sprinters at the Class 2A Track and Field State Meet.

Forsythe commends all of his players for their offseason commitment.

“I’m really happy for our kids. We’re quarterfinalists right now after 2-7 last year,” he said. “I can’t say enough about our seniors. It’s been a great ride so far.”

Quality maintained: Prairie Ridge’s 11-game playoff winning streak came to an end against Chicago Phillips, 24-19, Saturday at Gately Stadium in their Class 6A playoff second-round game. It was the Wolves’ first postseason loss since their 2015 6A semifinal setback to Montini.

Phillips, last year’s Class 5A state champion, asked the IHSA to play in 6A this season. Now, IC Catholic (4A) and Rochester (4A) have the longest playoff winning streaks, each at 12 games. IC Catholic won the past two 3A state titles and was boosted to 4A by the IHSA success factor.

Prairie Ridge started the season near the top of The Associated Press Class 6A poll. As the year progressed, the Wolves showed that the votes were deserved and not only on reputation. Their losses this season came against 8A playoff participant Huntley (6-4, by seven points), 6A top seed Cary-Grove (11-0, by seven points) and Phillips (9-2, by five points). No. 4-seeded Phillips plays at C-G at 1:30 p.m. Saturday.

“A lot of people doubted us, and we proved to a lot of people we could play with anyone,” Wolves safety Kyle Koelblinger said.

Big-time talent: The game against Phillips changed in the second quarter when Wildcats coach Troy McAllister moved tight end Jahleel Billingsley, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound senior committed to Alabama, to quarterback. From that point, Billingsley took snaps in the pistol formation and handed off to running back Anthony Anderson or usually ran himself.

Prairie Ridge experienced what it was like to face a big-time college prospect, as Billingsley’s speed and power made him difficult to bring down. He also made himself known at defensive end in slowing down the Wolves’ option offense.

Fullback Jackson Willis smiled when asked what it was like to play against Billingsley.

“There was one play where he held the back of my jersey, and I tried to get away and I held in place there,” said Willis, who is 5-6, 175 pounds. “I felt like a little kid. It was kind of embarrassing, but that speaks to his athleticism and how good he is.”

On that play, Billingsley was on the ground, but would not let go of Willis’ jersey, holding him in place for a 2-yard gain until help arrived.

Great bounceback: Even through tears and steady rain, the Crystal Lake South football team took a moment after Saturday’s loss to Niles Notre Dame in the Class 6A playoffs to take a team picture. Although they lost, 17-7, the Gators had much to celebrate after returning to the postseason for the first time in three years, and doing so after starting the season 0-2.

The Gators appeared to in trouble after losses to Cary-Grove and DeKalb in Weeks 1 and 2. Both were one-possession games, however, and showed promise.

“The resiliency of our seniors,” South coach Rob Fontana said. “Starting the season 0-2 against two really good opponents. They were able to stay focused and continue on our goals moving forward. They didn’t let that affect them. Our seniors, I give those guys so much credit for doing everything for us.”

Offensive lineman Trevor Keegan was the only Gator who had played in a playoff game before 2018. He said that from the beginning of the season, the focus was on one thing.

“Our goal at the beginning of the season was to get back to the playoffs,” Keegan said.

South won three consecutive games after the 0-2 start to get back over .500. Wins against McHenry and Jacobs in Weeks 7 and 8 all but guaranteed a playoff spot.

Not only did the Gators reach the postseason, but they also dominated Chicago Kenwood in the first round and earned a home playoff game for the first time since 2011.

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