The final moments of last year’s second-round loss against Montini re-emerged as Sycamore watched film in preparation for this afternoon’s long-anticipated rematch with the Broncos in Lombard.
All season, the Sycamore football team has focused solely on the game in front of it, but kept the goal of avenging the heartbreaking 24-22 loss in mind.
“Our main thing was we wanted to put ourselves in that position to see Montini again,” senior receiver Jake Winters said. “We wanted another shot at them.”
Finally they have it. More than a year after Sycamore came within 31 seconds of dethroning the Class 5A champions, the matchup is here. For the fifth time in seven years, the two teams will meet. Montini won the previous four.
Sycamore left Montini’s field last year without finishing. The Spartans’ 12-0 record shows that hasn’t been an issue in 2013. In a complete role reversal, Sycamore has been able to consistently close out tight games, including back-to-back playoff games against Nazareth and Lincoln-Way West that came down to the final possession.
“I think that comes with experience. We returned quite a bit of kids that have played in a lot of big ball games,” Sycamore coach Joe Ryan said. “They understood what they did right or what they didn’t do right. That’s coaches included. It’s a learning process for all of us. I think we’ve learned from those experiences and it’s helped us close out some of those games.”
Although the Montini roster features no Westerkamps or Borsellinos, memorable names that have terrorized Sycamore in the past, the Broncos feature many standouts from last year’s team.
Included in that group is quarterback Alex Wills, who caught Montini’s first touchdown against Sycamore last year and then moved to quarterback for the remainder of the game.
“He’s very versatile. From a mechanics standpoint, he’s really good,” Ryan said. “He can spin the ball really well; it gets to their receivers in a hurry.”
Just the Montini name often can offer an automatic intimidation factor to teams that have learned the history and know of Montini’s records.
But according to both Winters and Ryan, that isn’t the case with Sycamore. Last year, the Spartans went score-for-score with Montini for 48 minutes. As Ryan said, “The kids understand they’re not playing history, they’re playing this team on Saturday.”
Sycamore consistently has rewritten its record books this season as the Spartans have set a record for single-season wins (12) and claimed their first Northern Illinois Big 12 East crown. The Spartans have reached the semifinals for only the third time ever, and the first time since the playoff field was expanded to 32 teams.
Today they have the opportunity to erase the 31 seconds that has followed them all season.
“On a team level, nobody is scared of playing them, we wanted to play them,” Winters said. “In order to be the best, you have to beat the best. For the past four years they’ve been the best.”
CLASS 5A SEMIFINAL
No. 2 Sycamore (12-0) at No. 1 Montini (12-0)
Game time: 1 p.m. Saturday
Game location: Montini High School, 19W070 16th St, Lombard
How they got here: Montini defeated Morgan Park, 43-6, in the first round at home and defeated Marian, 40-7, on the road in second round. Montini squeaked by Joliet Catholic, 22-21, at home in the quarterfinals.
Sycamore defeated Antioch, 48-24, at home in the first round and beat Nazareth, 33-28, on the road in the second round. The Spartans edged Lincoln-Way West, 21-14, at home in the quarterfinals.
Scouting the Broncos: There isn’t much that has to be said about the four-time defending Class 5A state champions. Boasting Ohio State commit Dylan Thompson and Nile Sykes, who has received numerous Division I scholarship offers, Montini’s defense is stout.
Alex Wills returns as an experienced quarterback for Montini after leading the Broncos to the championship last season. A reporter who has seen Montini play numerous times this season said this might be the Broncos’ most talented team over the past five years.
Keys to victory: A versatile and balanced offense has allowed Sycamore to keep opponents off balance all season. Last week Sycamore largely abandoned the passing game when conditions necessitated an emphasis on the running attack.
Yet it’s the defense that has forced game-changing turnovers and gotten key stops over the past two games. To stick with Montini, the Spartans likely will need a couple big plays to go their way.
Last year, fumbles cost Sycamore early opportunities to score against Montini – it can’t afford to let those chances slip away again in 2013.
– Ross Jacobson, firstname.lastname@example.org