One of the most anticipated local games in recent state football playoff history is set for 3 p.m. Saturday at Lindenwood Stadium as the unbeaten Althoff Crusaders (11-0) take on five-time defending state champion Rochester (10-1) in the Class 4A quarterfinals.
The game matches two of the highest scoring teams in the state along with plenty of talent on both sides of the ball. Rochester averages 55 points per game while Althoff averages 48.
Rochester also enters the game with an incredible 27-game playoff win streak dating back to a 41-40 loss to Metamora in the 2009 4A semifinals.
Springfield Southeast head football coach Matt Lauber knows both programs well. He has coached against Rochester for two seasons at Southeast and was also as on the Althoff coaching staff when the Rockets beat Althoff 50-21 in the 2013 Class 4A quarterfinals.
Lauber was a standout receiver at Althoff as a player, but since turning to coaching has been extremely impressed by what coach Derek Leonard and Rochester have accomplished.
“They execute and don’t make many mistakes,” Lauber said. “They put a lot of pressure on you to do everything correctly - and they can score from anywhere. With that being said, they also pay good defense.”
LAuber is 0-2 against Rochester at Southeast, but did play the 2014 state champs to a 23-16 decision. Rochester beat Southeast 63-33 this season.
The Rockets run a no-huddle spread offense that stretches opposing defenses to the limit. Fifteen players have scored touchdowns led by the 28 scored by running back Kenny Hedges.
“They put up a lot of good numbers and they’re tough to stop,” Lauber said. “If you take away one thing they’re going to go for the next.”
The two quarterbacks, Althoff senior Jordan Augustine and Rochester senior Danny Zeigler, have combined to complete a staggering 331-of-478 passes for 5,860 yards and 71 touchdowns. Augustine broke Althoff’s single-season passing yards record Saturday against Quincy Notre Dame and on the season is 179-of-246 for 2,988 yards and 36 TD.
The 6-foot-5 Zeigler is 152-of-232 for 2,872 yards and 35 TDs for Rochester, which has beaten Marquette 52-7 and Murphysboro 47-20 in the playoffs. Althoff beat Clinton 62-27 and beat Quincy Notre Dame 58-21.
PILING UP TITLES
Rochester did lose a game this season, dropping a 53-34 decision to two-time defending state champ and Central State Eight Conference rival Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin (11-0). Rochester and Griffin own 10 state titles between them but it’s all in the same family since Leonard’s father, Ken Leonard, is the head coach at Griffin.
Rochester had a recent streak of sending five straight quarterbacks to the Division I ranks. The list included Kurt Long (Southern Illinois University Carbondale), Wil Lunt (Western Illinois), Sean Robinson (quarterback at Rochester, linebacker at Purdue), current Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt (transferred from Oklahoma State) and Austin Green (Eastern Illinois).
Lauber was impressed with Zeigler, the latest Rochester signal-caller.
“The quarterback’s the engine that makes them go,” Lauber said.
On top of that, the Rockets have star-level talent at running back in Hedges (1,338 yards, 28 TDs) and also at receiver with 6-6 junior Collin Stallworth (44 catches, 860 yards, 13 TDs), D’Ante’ Cox (41 catches, 803 yards, nine TDs) and Avante’ Cox (16 catches, 465 yards, seven TDs).
“Coach Leonard’s got it going on and has the program moving in the right direction,” said Lauber, who appreciates the innovation and changes Leonard is able to bring to games on a regular basis. “Each week’s he’s doing something you didn’t see the week before, the year before.
“They go out there and they just expect to win. It doesn’t matter who’s out there or if it’s a new kid or not. They’ve got a great tradition.”
Quincy Notre Dame lost 58-21 to Althoff on Saturday in a second-round game and lost 35-14 to Rochester in the second round of the 2014 playoffs. QND coach Bill Connell knows and has scouted both teams, so what does Connell think of Saturday’s quarterfinal matchup?
“They’ve got some great, great, great, great athletes on that team,” Connell said of Althoff. “Rochester’s much more disciplined. I think Rochester probably has a lot less athletes to work with.”
This could be the largest crowd at renovated Lindenwood Stadium, especially since the visitor side bleachers have been removed.
Large Althoff playoff crowds at the place formerly known as Township Stadium in recent years include a 2012 Class 2A quarterfinal win over Casey-Westfield and a Class 5A semifinal loss to Pontiac in 2002.
“I expect this to be a bigger crowd for the fact that you’re looking at the five-time defending state champions,” Althoff High Principal David Harris said. “They will have the end zone (bleachers at both ends) and the bleachers and possibly the walkways in the end zones available.”
The key to Mater Dei’s upset win over previously undefeated Columbia in Saturday’s second round 4A playoff game were four well-timed defensive takeaways.
The Knights (8-3) fell on an Eagles’ fumble in the first quarter and turned it into three points with a 24-yard field goal from Grant Huelsmann. Then they intercepted three Columbia passes, including a back-breaker late in the game by linebacker Nic Seelhoefer.
Playing with a cast on one broken hand, the 6-foot-1, 204-pound freshman picked quarterback Drew Huebner with the healthy one to effectively seal the Knights’ victory and advancement to the quarterfinals.
“Seelhoefer has a broken hand and a big-ol’ cast on the other,” Mater Dei coach Jim Stiebel said. “He got that pick with his off hand on a tip and all props are due to him for doing it. We’ve got him for another three years and are just ectatic about the player we think he’s going to be after a good off-season of (weight) lifting.”
HORNETS WANT IT ALL
The Nashville Hornets have never won a state football championship, finishing second in 1998 with a 21-7 loss to Kaneland in the 3A state finals. The Hornets lost in the 2009 3A quarterfinals and reached the 2004 3A semifinals before losing 21-0 to Bureau Valley.
(Sports editor Todd Eschman supplied information for this story).
State Football Playoffs Quarterfinals
Saturday, Nov. 14
Rochester (10-1) vs. Althoff (11-0), 3 p.m. at Lindenwood Stadium in Belleville
Taylorville (11-0) at Mater Dei (8-3), 2 p.m.
Athens (7-4) at Nashville (8-3), 2 p.m.