The aura of invincibility that was once theirs alone when it came to Illinois high school football has lessened considerably in the past decade.
It’s been 11 years since the Joliet Catholic Hilltoppers won the last of their record 13 state championships. The school and football program which produced Rudy Ruettiger, whose real life story was the basis of the 1993 football movie “Rudy,” last reached the Class 5A state semifinals in 2012 and failed to earn an IHSA playoff bid the past two years before just getting in this season with a 5-4 record.
But they are still the Joliet Catholic Hilltoppers and Satuday they will be the team standing in the way of the undefeated and second-seeded Highland Bulldogs’ quest for a Class 5A quarterfinal win and second straight state semifinal playoff berth.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity to play a football program that has a lot of tradition and has had a lot of success. Just like it was last year when we played Rochester in the Class 4A semi,’’ Highland coach Jim Warnecke said following practice on Wednesday. “It should be a great football game. They have an excellent team and we have an excellent team. We’re looking forward to playing a good football game and hopefully reaching the state semifinals for the second year in a row next week. This time at home.’’
While Joliet Catholic (7-4) is making its 40th playoff appearance and has played for state championships 17 times, Highland can qualify for the state semifinals for the third time in school history on Saturday. Led by all-state running back Billy Greenwald, Highland reached the 1989 Class 4A semifinal under coach Mike Hooker where it lost to Morris 40-14.
Then last year, led by record-setting quarterback and News-Democrat Small school offensive player of the year Garrett Marti, Highland won its first 12 games before falling to eventual Class 4A state champion Rochester (31-14) in a semifinal on a cold, icy Saturday in central Illinois.
A Class 4A all-state wide receiver a year ago, Bulldogs senior Sam LaPorta will be looking forward to a NCAA Division I college football next season. The 6-4, 215-pound LaPorta has scholarship offers from several schools including Northern Iowa, SIU-Carbondale, Eastern Michigan and Yale.
But LaPorta isn’t thinking about college or scholarship offers right now.
“We’re ready to go on Saturday,’’ LaPorta said Wednesday. “We’re more prepared this year. The seniors, we’ve been together for a long time. We know what to expect and we’re focused on one opponent at a time. Our focus this week is Joliet Catholic and going up and playing a good football game.
“Recruiting is still the same ... There will be time for that in a few weeks.’’
The road playoff game is just the second in two years for the Bulldogs.
Highland won three straight playoff games at home last year before being bounced by Rochester. This season, after rolling through an undefeated regular season which included a third straight Mississippi Valley Conference championship, the Bulldogs have defeated Rich Central 61-21 and Mattoon 56-35 in the playoffs the last two weeks. Both games were in Highland.
To prepare for Joliet Catholic, Highland practiced on artificial turf at Mater Dei on Wednesday.
“It was just a change. Plus we wanted to work out on turf,’’ Warnecke said. “We know what we have ahead of us. At this stage of the season every team is good. On the road or at home, it comes down to execution in every phase of the game, fundamentals and not turning over the football.’’