Goss: Healthy Joliet Catholic wary of Lincoln-Way West
November 7, 2012 9:56PM
Joliet Catholic's Tyler Reitz. | Larry Kane~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 9, 2012 7:33PM
Joliet Catholic coach Dan Sharp talked all season about the quality and depth in the East Suburban Catholic Conference.
Nothing that occurred in the first two rounds of the playoffs changed his mind.
So when he says Lincoln-Way West is “as good a team as we have played all year,” you get a clear idea of the respect he has for the Hilltoppers’ opponent in Saturday’s 1 p.m. Class 5A quarterfinal in New Lenox.
Joliet Catholic (7-4) ousted West 48-14 in the opening round last season. But the Warriors (8-3), who are riding a five-game winning streak, are even better in 2012.
“A lot of the guys who they have played last year, and even though this is Dave Ernst’s first year as the head coach, their staff is pretty much in place,” Sharp said. “They have great talent, use it well and are well coached. Watching them on film, we don’t see a weakness.”
That West eliminated previously unbeaten Kaneland 31-15 last week was a mild surprise to some. That the Warriors led 31-0 with barely more than two minutes left might have raised eyebrows.
“Believe me, when I heard score it was no surprise to me,” Sharp said. “They played an unbelievable game against a very good team, and they are just going to get better.”
Of course, there is a flip side. Especially now that Joliet Catholic is healthy after seasonlong injury issues, the Hilltoppers will be a tough out for anyone remaining in 5A.
“We do have a very good team,” Sharp said. “We don’t have the depth we’ve had in the past. Our numbers are not what they were 10 years ago.
“We’ve lost some games when we had guys out (with injuries). But we might have lost some games if we hadn’t had the injuries because our conference is really improving. We saw this coming. We knew it would be a more difficult road to the playoffs now.”
West has been good defensively all season, and the Warriors are much better offensively the last several games.
“They are very strong up front on defense and quick,” Sharp said. “They play their keys well and fly to the football. You can see they play with great passion.
“On offense, their quarterback (Justin Keuch) is an outstanding player. And No. 7 (LaVaonte Blackful), who they use in the Wildcat, is as good a player as we have seen. He’s a Devin Hester-type, and he plays defense (cornerback), too.
“Plus, they have a big and physical line with a tremendous lineman (tackle Colin McGovern) going to Notre Dame. So they have the full package.”
Then again, Joliet Catholic’s offense, with USC-bound running back Ty Isaac healthy, may be a step above anything the Warriors’ defense has seen. Despite the health issues, the Hilltoppers are averaging 35.7 points per game.
In a weird sort of way, the earlier injuries may have helped make Joliet Catholic more difficult to prepare for in November. Isaac and backfield mates Mike Ivlow and Tyler Reitz all have between 120 and 123 carries, so all have been seasoned to carry their share of the load. The have combined for 2,656 yards, with Isaac’s 1,043 leading the way.
“It’s funny how we had the injuries and now it’s kind of evened out with the number of carries,” Sharp said.
The Joliet Catholic passing game, with Craig Slowik calling signals, also has developed, to some degree out of necessity, to the point where it is a significant element in the offense.
“We had a game or two where we had two fullbacks and three ends in there because of injuries,” Sharp said. “There were times we were forced to throw, and we threw it pretty well. Now if we are in the situation where the defense dictates that we throw, we have the ability to mix in the pass and that makes us more effective.
“We can drop back and pass now. Our whole passing game isn’t just off play-action.”
Slowik has completed 73-of-150 passes for an area-best 1,403 yards. Chris Tschida has caught 27 for 522 yards and Jordan Jones 23 for 449 to rank as two of the top receivers in the area.
Through it all, the offensive line of left tackle J.B. Butler, left guard Brody Fay, center Lino Bibian, right guard Jalen Hansel and right tackle Justin Hunter has been solid.
“We’re getting great leadership on offense and our line is getting better,” Sharp said. “With the three backs in there, the continuity is there. It’s great to have the guys on the field. We do have a rhythm about us when that happens.”
If that rhythm is contagious, if it carries over to the defensive side of the ball, that’s when the Hilltoppers are especially dangerous. Joliet Catholic has been up and down defensively but has played well in the playoffs.
As Sharp said, however, West is as good a team as the Hilltoppers have seen, and the Warriors have become an offensive juggernaut the last several weeks.
This one should be fun.