This weekend, for the first time in program history, the Fenwick High School football team will participate in an IHSA state championship game.
The Friars (11-2) are set to meet Kankakee (13-0) for the Class 5A title on Nov. 27 at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. Kickoff is scheduled for 10 a.m.
It’s a battle between two schools making their first appearances in a football state final. There are some similarities between Fenwick and Kankakee, but also a potentially important difference that could prove to be decisive.
Let’s look at how the teams stack up.
The Friars have been fueled all season by a dynamic and diverse offense led by senior quarterback Kaden Cobb, a Ball State recruit.
“Kaden’s football knowledge has always been there,” said Fenwick coach Matt Battaglia in a conference call Nov.22. “But now it’s gone to the next level. He’s confident, but not cocky.”
Cobb has three very talented senior wide receivers to throw to in Bryan Hunt Jr, Eian Pugh (Illinois) and Max Reese (Eastern Michigan).
“Bryan is probably one of the best route runners in the state,” Battaglia said. “Eian has elite ball skills, and Max is the whole package. He’s also our Swiss army knife; he’s played some running back and tight end for us.”
But it’s not all about the passing game for the Friars. Running the ball is critical in the playoffs, and Fenwick’s ground attack is in good hands with Cobb and running backs Danny Kent and Jacque Walls.
“Danny’s one of the toughest kids I’ve ever been around,” said Battaglia. “He gives the offense a lot of comfort.”
No offense can have success without a stout line, and the Friars have one that Battaglia calls “very underrated,” allowing only 10 sacks the entire season. Center Jimmy Liston (Purdue) and right tackle Rasheed Anderson are its leaders.
But for as much attention is paid to the offense, it’s the defense that has keyed Fenwick’s postseason success. Coordinator Titcus Pettigrew has crafted a unit that can adjust to various offensive systems.
Senior lineman Suleiman Abuaqel has come up with several big plays the last two weeks. At Nazareth on Nov. 13, his 58-yard interception return for a touchdown late sealed the Friars’ win. Then against Sycamore on Nov. 20, he sacked Spartans quarterback Eli Meier four times, giving Abuaqel 14 on the season.
“Suleiman has meant a lot. He’s coming through for us at the end,” said senior linebacker Conor Paris.
Elsewhere up front on defense, junior Mirko Jaskic and senior Aidan Vargas have been solid. The Friars have also received good play from freshman defensive end Nathaniel Marshall, who got called up to the varsity at the end of the regular season.
Linebackers Luke D’Alise, Conor Paris, and Quin Wieties have been consistent all year. In the secondary, Battaglia calls senior safety Martin Paris (Conor’s twin brother) the defensive field general, just as Cobb is on offense. And he believes Walls (Minnesota State) and Denium Juette are very good lockdown cornerbacks.
Fenwick has one more weapon that can come in handy in close games — senior kicker/punter Iain Ramage, who’s also a key contributor in the secondary. His 31-yard field goal against Sycamore late sealed the Friars’ trip to NIU.
Kays put undefeated record on the line
Undefeated Kankakee set a new single-season school record for victories and won the Southland Conference championship for the first time in 2021. In coach Derek Hart’s three seasons, the Kays have complied a 26-4 record.
Like Fenwick, Kankakee has several players who have been on the varsity for three years, including senior quarterback Tomele Staples (1,976 yards, 29 TD this season), senior wide receiver Pierre Allen (56 receptions, 1,090 yards, 17 TD) along with senior defensive linemen Marques Covington (14 sacks, 49 tackles) and Joseph Shannon (8 sacks, 41 tackles).
The Kays have thrived on offense, averaging 42 points per game. Running back/cornerback Jyaire Hill has given opponents fits both ways, rushing for 471 yards and 8 touchdowns on offense and racking up team leads in tackles (50) and interceptions (7).
Kankakee’s speed is something the Friars will have to be aware of, particularly on the outside.
“If we don’t contain their speed, we’re going to have problems,” Battaglia said.
At first glance, Fenwick and Kankakee are mirror images of each other. Both have explosive offenses, stingy defenses and solid special teams. That should ensure a very close and competitive game.
But I believe there is one important aspect that will ultimately make the difference, and that’s experience in close games. Kankakee got pushed in the quarterfinals against Marion, but otherwise has had several blowout wins this year. The Southland Conference, while solid, is not of the same caliber as the Catholic League/East Suburban Silver Conference, where Fenwick plays.
The Friars’ two losses this season came by a combined four points – 21-20 at Providence Catholic on Sept. 10, and 27-24 to Loyola Academy on Sept. 24, when the Ramblers kicked a 42-yard field goal as time expired. Battaglia believes those losses helped give Fenwick the experience it needed to close out tight games.
The Friars’ mettle showed in wins against Marmion Academy, St. Ignatius, Rockford Boylan, Nazareth and Sycamore. In each of those games, Fenwick came through with clutch plays down the stretch to secure victory.
And now that the Friars have advanced to state for the first time, Battaglia is confident the team is ready to complete a mission it established in August, to win a state championship.
“Winning the semifinal was a monkey off the program’s back,” he said. “We’re happy, but we’re also still hungry.”
I picked Fenwick to win Class 5A this year, and I see no reason to change anything. Yes, Kankakee will be a formidable opponent, but I like Fenwick’s chances in a close one. This is a special senior class, and its experience and leadership should be enough to give the Friars their first state football championship.
Tate’s Take: Fenwick 35, Kankakee 28