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FOOTBALL: Triumph, Yet Tragedy in Chicago’s Far South Suburbs

Historic Season for Manteno Endures Tragic Occurrence, But Proceeds Forward

Beginning as another anticipated day to prepare for the next step of a historic football season, a tragic set of circumstances was about to crash down on players from the small, close-knit community located on the northern edge of Kankakee County. Tuesday morning Manteno High School Football Assistant and Head Wrestling Coach Cory Blanchette was struck by a car while taking an early jog, and passed away at the scene of the accident.

 

Less than 72 hours prior to the unexpected tragedy, the Panthers were celebrating the school’s first playoff win in school history. On Monday, they began to prepare for the next step of what had been a season filled with remarkable firsts for the community, and all attention was squarely on second round opponent Rochester.

 

Now, despite all the focus and fortitude the Manteno football team has shown during their statement-making season, it will be difficult not to constantly think about the loss of one of their school district and community’s most well-known and respected figures. Blanchette led the Panthers to their first ever 1A regional wrestling championship. He was a Manteno grad himself, teacher and football coach the last five years, and commanded the wrestling team for over a decade. He was a husband, and father of four. Tragedy may not be a big enough word to describe this loss.

 

The great game of high school football seems somewhat insignificant in comparison to an unfortunate event of this magnitude. However, the playoffs will proceed as planned for the Panthers football team. It’s likely they all believe that’s what Blanchette would have wanted, and after I learned more about him, they’d most certainly be right.

 

No one, least of all the community’s fans and faithful following, will blame the Panthers one shred if they’re unable to play their traditional brand of football Saturday and score another historic playoff win for the school. This is certain to be a week filled with a great deal of sadness and frustration for both coaches and players. But even in terrible times such as this, football can provide a perfect therapeutic escape.

 

If only for the length of a typical gridiron match, both the personnel and fans will have an opportunity to feel close to normal again. If only for 48 minutes, Manteno’s players can say they gave it their all in memory of their coach.

 

While acknowledgement of a loss this sincere is important, of equal significance is to recognize what the Panthers accomplished prior to this unforeseen event. Manteno and neighbor to the south Bishop McNamara are still competing at a time when prior to the season few thought they both would, and there is certainly nothing tragic about that.

 

Making History in Manteno

Trying to convince the Manteno football program that the ‘crawl before you can walk’ philosophy is a series of gradual, long-term steps up an evenly distributed ladder would be an act in futility.

 

Sure, last Saturday wasn’t the school’s first rodeo when it came to the Illinois state playoffs. They earned the first invitation in school history the season before. But on that date last October, they appeared like a group of young bucks that were outmatched and outgunned in new surroundings, falling 41-13.

 

This season’s first round was another story. In Saturdays 48-22 pounding of Peoria Notre Dame, the Panthers that appeared to be calves just coming up in the playoff world of Illinois last season looked more like stallions only a year later.

 

Maybe the school’s 8-1 season should have been an indicator of what was to come, or the fact that they won a conference featuring four playoff qualifiers. Still, they remained a relatively young varsity program that still hadn’t tasted the sweet spice of playoff victory. That’s now the past.

 

PND blinked, and before they knew what happened seven minutes into the game they were down 14-0. By halftime the outcome wasn’t in doubt, and PND’s only offensive touchdowns came when Manteno’s defensive starters were standing on the sidelines after having dominated for three quarters.

 

‘Crawl before you can walk’ – maybe this Manteno team was beginning to take baby steps with last season’s season first ever playoff birth following years of growing pains that are familiar to any small town building up a varsity football program for the first time. They’re now not only walking, but in full sprint forward toward the ultimate goal of a state title.

 

This was no fluke regular season, and Saturday’s robust victory proves they’re legitimate contenders for the 4A crown. However, a showdown with the defending state champions (and one of the state’s best players) this Saturday and potential match-up with a regionally familiar foe are still major challenges awaiting these new prep stars of the far south Chicagoland area.

 

Familiar Faces of Success to the South

 

While Manteno may be featured in Kankakee County’s prep headlines more frequently this year, one program that’s no stranger to success is still in the hunt and soon could be standing between the Panthers and their path toward the 4A title game in Champaign. Bishop McNamara has won four state titles in school history, finishing runner-up in another three, and find they’re at an advantage following last week’s equally impressive first round win at Bloomington Central Catholic.

 

Finishing 7-2 during the regular season with the only blemishes coming to Chicago Catholic powers St. Rita and Brother Rice , maybe the 6th seed bestowed upon McNamara in the playoff selection was not quite the spot they deserved. Fortunately, in the Illinois postseason system, if an underrated seed can come out on top in the first round they can sometimes find themselves in a more favorable position come round two. McNamara did.

 

Seventh seeded Prairie Central came through with a surprise victory over Mahomet-Seymour, and now must make a long trip from central Illinois up to Kankakee for a second round showdown with the Irish. Sure, their victory over an opponent that drew a No. 2 seed and had only lost once during the regular season proves they can contend. However, Prairie Central had the luxury of drawing a familiar conference foe and made a short road trip as far as playoffs are concerned. Furthermore, both PC and the team they defeated were unable to contend with Bloomington Central Catholic during the regular season, which McNamara had no trouble disposing of last week.

 

That certainly does not mean the Irish are guaranteed winners. PC lost during the regular season to Mahomet-Seymour, but came through in the rematch which mattered more. However, they’re now in much more hostile territory, making a longer trip up north to face an unfamiliar foe that contends with some of Chicago’s best each season.

 

The Irish’s season has been far from perfect, but last week’s win over a team that is consistently one of the best in Central Illinois proves they’re playing at the level required to make a run for the title. Their position is favorable, likely more so than their surprising neighbors to the north who must play at the top of their game if the Manteno-MacNamara playoff quarterfinals cross-county war is to be declared next week.

 

Manteno (9-1) at Rochester (8-2)

 

Manteno junior quarterback Ryan Sample may have been a relative unknown in class 4A prior to 2011, but the 26 TD passes he’s thrown this season are surely not to go unnoticed. He’s led an offense that is averaging over 38 points/game this season and 51 in each of the last three contests. He has an experienced offensive line at his side, and elite playmaker JJ Witherow, who has well over 1000 yards receiving during 2011, in his arsenal. Combined with stellar running back Mike Benegas, the Panthers offense is definitely equipped for another week of wreckage. However, Rochester is ready to counter with an equally explosive style.

 

Down 14-0 to Quincy Notre Dame last week in the opening round, Rochester went on to score the next four touchdowns and would eventually cruise to a 56-35 victory on the road. That was the third time this season the Raiders have scored over 50 points. Led by record setting division-I recruit QB Wes Lunt, the defending state champion’s offense averages nearly 40 points and has been held under 20 only once this season.

 

Their only two losses came to 5A undefeated powerhouse Sacred Heart Griffin and Chatham Glenwood (8-1), whose only loss themselves came to SHG. Lunt did not play in those games because of an injury. Aside from losses against two teams that each could be playing for a state title later this month, no other squad has came within a touchdown of the Rockets. Still, according to IHSA seeding, this was a team not placed in the top half of the 32-team 4A playoff field. Something tells me McNamara wasn’t the only team to draw a misleading seed.

 

Outlook: Rational analysis is difficult after the Manteno football program had to endure the tragic loss of Cory Blanchette. Despite the excitement and adrenaline marked by another historic game for the school, Saturday will likely be yet another emotionally draining day for players, coaches, and fans with one of the community’s most familiar faces no longer on the sidelines.

 

Not making the situation any easier is having to travel 170 miles, in only the second round. Rochester is obviously a far better team than the 5th seed indicates, and if factors play out in their favor the Raiders themselves could making a repeat run at the 4A title. Their offense is equally explosive as Manteno’s, and after scoring an opening round win on the road they’ll enjoy the familiar surroundings of Sangamon County.

 

Under the circumstances, this may appear as a situation where the Panthers wouldn’t likely be playing past Saturday. They do have much more important matters to attend to in the community. However, this is a team that’s faced one challenge after another this season and responded each time. Obviously they’re now dealing with an off-the-field tragedy that no team should have to endure, and it’s much more difficult to overcome than any challenge on the field. Even with the memory of a great mentor weighing on their shoulders, I still believe Manteno can overcome both off the field, and on.

 

I said back in week seven they simply didn’t have enough to beat undefeated Coal City, and was wrong. After that, I promised to not pick against the Panthers again this season, and I’m sticking to it. No matter the opponent, no matter the circumstances.

PREDICTION: Manteno 36, Rochester 35

 

Bishop McNamara (8-2) vs. Fairbury Prairie Central (7-3)

 

McNamara made a bit of history their own this season, as head coach Rich Zinanni scored his 300th career win in week 8. That victory didn’t come easy for the Irish, but last week’s opening round win was a much more impressive showing. Although not fundamentally perfect (six turnovers committed), the Irish led 21-0 at one point early and made big plays on special teams in the second half during their romp over thirds seed Bloomington Central Catholic.

 

Channing Dolliger has done an admirable job leading McNamara’s offense this season, as he threw for over 1,400 yards and 18 touchdowns during the regular season.

Ryan Grant came into the playoffs averaging just over 100 yards/game, and the receiving duo of Ryan Lambert and Ed Dorsey are reason why the Irish have averaged right at 30 points per game this season.

 

While the Irish advancing on with a road win over a higher seed came as no shocker, Prairie Central showing up in the second round was a bit surprising. Many thought Mahomet-Seymour was a shoe-in as McNamara’s opponent come this weekend, but PC had other plans. After starting the season 1-3, the hawks have now won six straight after avenging a harsh defeat earlier in the season with a win over Mahomet in the opening round. The early struggles were likely due to injuries and suspensions that kept some key players out of the lineup. Now they’re back at full strength, led by QB Addison Bounds who has rushed for 16 touchdowns this season and thrown for another 11.

 

Outlook: This is a match-up that may have favored Prairie Central a bit more if they had the luxury of playing at home. However, with McNamara scoring a road win themselves last week and holding the higher seed between the two teams the home field goes to them in round two, and so does the advantage. A second straight upset win on the road for Prairie Central, with this trip being considerably longer, is likely too tall a task.

 

I’ll give credit to the Hawks, coming back the way they did the second half of this season and convincingly winning a playoff game in which many believed they didn’t have a chance.  However, as talented as the conference PC competes in (Corn Belt – 4 playoff qualifiers) may be, it isn’t the same as playing stiff competition in Chicago’s Catholic League Conferences.

 

The Irish have the right amount of weapons, momentum, and playoff experience as a program to come out on top. The Hawks will make this won competitive, but the home field advantage in this situation is enough reason for me to believe McNamara will advance and potentially set-up a showdown in Manteno next weekend that would truly be a game to remember for all those involved.

PREDICTION: Bishop McNamara 30, Prairie Central 22

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