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Football Playoff Talk

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Spectacular catches by All-State receiver Mike O'Laughlin, like this one last week against St. Francis, have become a common sight for Fenwick fans.
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The answer is yes. With a 5-3 record heading into Saturday afternoon’s divisional road game against the 6-2 De La Salle Meteors (to be played at St. Rita), our 2017 opponents’ strength of schedule will give us enough playoff points to earn a berth -- even with a loss this week. On Sunday morning, Head Football Coach Gene Nudo and his varsity staff will begin preparing their team for post-season battle for the fifth time in Nudo’s first six years at Fenwick.

“When I came here [in 2012], I set out to build a winning program. I told our team that our goal was to win a playoff game, not just to go to the playoffs” says Nudo, whose Fenwick teams now have won eight IHSA playoff games, starting with a thrilling 10-9 victory over Huntley's Red Raiders in ’12. “A lot of teams go to the playoffs,” he explains, “but winning in the first round sets you apart.”

From Fenwick Television: Relive highlights of the 2012 Huntley grinder, including Zach Laszkiewicz's 27-yard, game-winning field goal with no time on the clock! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-Sl2l0YbMg

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Except for the ’15 Friars, which did not make the playoffs, Fenwick has won at least one playoff game in each of its previous four appearances under Nudo. The 2014 team lost four regular-season games, piquing to win two in the playoffs: first beating Highland Park, which had been undefeated, and then Carmel of Mundelein before falling to Riley Lees and Libertyville in the quarter-finals. (The athletic Lees now is a redshirt freshman at Northwestern.) Last year’s 2016 squad won three playoff games – or four, if you count the semi-final. “I’ll never consider Plainfield [North] as a loss,” Coach Nudo says.

This year, De La Salle, Montini and Fenwick all have 2-1 records against conference opponents in the Chicago Catholic League (CCL) Green Division. Fans will recall that Montini beat Fenwick on Sept. 8th; they also defeated De La Salle on Sept. 29th. With a victory on Saturday, the Friars can claim a share of the Green crown as co-champion with the Broncos. The Meteors, with six victories, already are playoff-bound no matter what happens against us. (Their other loss was to Nazareth Academy.)

So, who might Fenwick play the weekend leading into Halloween? Our final regular-season record will narrow the potential match-ups but, as of right now, there are a dozen Class 7A teams who conceivably could punch a Friars’ ticket when the seedings are announced on Saturday night. CCL Blue foe St. Rita is one of them; so is Plainfield North -- wouldn’t that rematch be fun?! Since losing to the Friars on Sept. 1st, Moline has gone on a six-game winning streak. The nine other 7A bracket possibilities are, in alphabetical order: Batavia, Buffalo Grove, Lake Zurich, Lincoln-Way West, Normal, Rockford East, Rolling Meadows, St. Charles North and Wheaton North.

On Oct. 6th, De La Salle upset Mount Carmel’s Caravan by a score of 21-14. It always is interesting in the rough-and-tumble CCL, which arguably is the strongest football conference in the state of Illinois. Since the IHSA began the football tournament in 1974, the CCL has placed first or second more than any conference or league in the state.

Fenwick in the Playoffs

The Illinois High School Association (IHSA) introduced its state playoff system for football 44 years ago. That’s why the Prep Bowl, pitting the Chicago Catholic and Public League champions against each other, had been such a major event until then. (An estimated 120,000 football fans packed Soldier Field in 1937 to watch Austin play Leo; another 91,328 souls saw Fenwick rout Schurz 40-0 in 1962.)

Since the Illinois playoff system was instituted, Fenwick has qualified 18 of the past 43 football seasons. Five times the Friars have advanced to the quarter-finals, and thrice we’ve gone to a semi-final game: in 1981, 1995 and last year’s infamous Plainfield North fiasco. The bitter pill of playoff defeat is nothing new for Fenwick to swallow:

  • Just ask the 2012 Friars (8-3). Following the one-point victory over Huntley, they missed the quarter-finals by a mere 19 seconds after Boylan Catholic returned a late 4th-quarter punt for a touchdown in Rockford.
     
  • A year later at Elmhurst College, the then 9-1 Friars squandered a 25-point, second-quarter lead in what would become known as the Wheaton North debacle. Aided by some suspect officiating, Falcons QB Clayton Thorson (now a senior playing at Northwestern) threw for more than 400 yards and five passing TDs – most of them coming in the second half.

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    In 2013 Wheaton North couldn't stop Friars' tight end Ryan Smith, who had three first-half touchdown catches. But the controversial second half was all Falcons. (Smith is now a senior playing for the Miami of Ohio Redhawks.)
     
  • Rewind 32 years to 1981, when the 9-2 Friars lost 7-6 to eventual 6A champion Brother Rice. “We beat them 15-6 earlier in the year,” recalls Joe Bauers ’82, who played linebacker on that team and now is in his second season as the Defensive Coordinator for Fenwick’s Freshman Football Team. Of the ’81 team’s other two losses, one was in overtime and another was by only four points, Bauers reports. “We only gave up 60 points during the regular season that year,” he adds proudly. In the playoffs, the Friars beat Lane Tech 29-6, then shutout New Trier by a score of 10-0 before their one-point semi-final disappointment. The Crusaders went on to shutout Reavis 14-0 and take the 6A crown.
     
  • Fourteen years later the ’95 Friars (12-1) were stout defensively as well, posting nine shutouts, according to Dean of Students Ray Moland ’96, who started at nose tackle 22 years ago and now is a Defensive Line Coach for our Sophomore Football Team. (Mr. Moland also wrestled; you can see his muscle-bound photo on the Wrestling Room wall!) Two of those shutouts were in the playoffs, blanking Crystal Lake South 41-0 in the opening round, then edging out Bolingbrook 7-0 in the quarter-finals; sandwiched in between those two games was a 29-7 second-round victory over Loyola.

As one of the largest (physically speaking) teams in Fenwick history, these Friars were undefeated rolling into the semi-final game against Maine South. In the mud at Oak Park Stadium, “we lost [24-21] on a 27-yard field goal in overtime,” Moland says, reliving the heartbreak of 135-pound, All-State kicker Brian Schmitz’s big leg. The Hawks (12-2) ran the Catholic-League gauntlet, beating St. Rita in the quarter-finals, then going on to defeat Mt. Carmel and win the 5A championship game (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BR2rK-uEGio). Massive Marques Sullivan ’96 was Moland’s teammate and a fellow wrestler (a 325-pound heavyweight). Standing 6’5”, Sullivan was an All-State tackle for the Friars and among the top three offensive line prospects in the entire country. He chose the University of Illinois and later played professionally for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, New York Giants and New England Patriots.

“We should have gone [to the state playoffs] in ’74, too,” recalls former freshman football coach Rich Borsch, who also is Assistant Principal and Director of Student Services. That year, St. Laurence qualified for an at-large berth, but the Vikings refused to share their CCL crown with Fenwick. So our gridiron gang stayed home, or played in the Prep Bowl playoffs, as it were.

Thirty-two teams are invited to the playoff for each of the eight classes (a total of 256 teams, which represents more than half the schools with football teams): 1A teams hail from the smallest high schools in Illinois; 8A teams come from the largest schools. Because they can recruit athletes, Catholic schools, such as Fenwick, must multiply their enrollments by 1.65. That equation bumps our co-ed enrollment of 1,200 to a virtual student body of 1,980. Class 7A school enrollments averaged 2,033 students in 2016.

Historical note: For the first six years of the playoffs (1974-79), there were only five (not eight) classes for football; from 1980-2000 there were six. “With only 16 teams selected per class, the overall playoff pool was far less than what it is now,” remembers current Fenwick Head Freshman Football Coach Mark Vruno. “If you made the cut, teams had to play three games in eight days. One post-season win put you in the quarter-finals, but first-round competition was stiff,” says Vruno, whose 9-1 Ridgewood team lost to future Iowa and NFL quarterback Chuck Long and, perhaps ironically, Wheaton North in 1979.

Fasten your seatbelts, Friar Nation, and let the madness begin. March, Men of Steel! Go Friars!!

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