Steve Soucie: Morris climbs the impossible mountain (2005 Class 6A quarterfinals)
It was one of those rare circumstances where the reality actually lived up to the hype.
I arrived over three hours in advance of a 2005 Class 6A quarterfinal between Morris and Joliet Catholic hoping to settle in before the expected large crowd showed up for a contest that had been heavily anticipated since the postseason brackets had been revealed.
As it turned out, I miscalculated as fans were already ringing the field and looked as if they'd been there for most of the day just biding their time.
Joliet Catholic had won state championships in five of the previous seasons and was considered to be a mountain that Morris, while a very strong team, would not be able to climb.
In reality, it was Joliet Catholic that had the problem they couldn't solve in the presence of running back/defensive back John Dergo.
Dergo, who later went on to shine in wrestling at the University of Illinois, looked something like a lilliputian in a land of giants when he hit the field against a ominous looking defensive frontline from Joliet Catholic.
But it was Dergo who established very quickly that he was going to be the giant that needed to be slayed, scoring on a 82-yard touchdown on Morris' first play from scrimmage.
As great teams do, Joliet Catholic responded with a touchdown to tie the score and then another to take the lead on a Joe Benson touchdown reception. But just before halftime, Dergo, who had been piling up large chunks of yards in the interim, broke free for an incredible 67-yard score where it felt like he had taken on every member of the JCA defense to tie the game at 14 at halftime.
JCA didn't figure out a miracle cure to stopping Dergo at the break. Dergo piloted his team's offense down field to set up a short touchdown pass to allow Morris to reclaim the lead and a few minutes later, Dergo ripped off a 68-yard touchdown run to put Morris up two scores.
Joliet Catholic answered with a halfback pass from Benson to close within 28-21 and was driving again when Dergo changed hats and contributed on the defensive side with an interception to thwart the drive with under five minutes to play.
The Hilltoppers had one more charge in them and once again marched down the field and appeared to be on their way to an equalizing score, but Dergo and JCA wide receiver Dan Hvratin came down with a pass reception in the end zone which Dergo was able to wrestle away for another interception that sealed the victory.
Dergo finished with 368 yards rushing on the game and two weeks later Morris captured the Class 6A State Title with a 14-9 victory over Normal Community.
Rob Oesterle: Another perspective on Morris vs. JCA (2005 Class 6A quarterfinals)
It was the game everyone wanted to see.
In years past, Morris had played Joliet Catholic Academy, and usually played them close. But, all those games had been in one Memorial Stadium or another, either in Joliet or Champaign.
In 2005, though, the way the playoffs were set up, the game was going to finally be in Morris. The Redskins had a brand new coach. George Dergo had taken over for the legendary Dan Darlington, who did pretty much everything in his long and illustrious career at Morris - except beat Joliet Catholic. Everyone in Morris had always wanted to get the Hilltoppers on the Morris field, and it happened.
John Dergo was the headliner for Morris, and he more than lived up to the hype. But, Morris also had an offensive line that featured tight ends like 6-foot-7, 280-pound Jamie Cumbie, who went on to play defensive end at Clemson and made the practice squad for the Oakland Raiders - and 6-5, 250 Dane Zumbahlen, who went on to play at Illinois State. There was also 6-6, 280-pound tackle Alex Perry, who went on to be a starter at Indiana University. That's a lot of manpower to get through before you even got a chance to bring down Dergo, who was the defending state 171-pound wrestling champion and had put on 10 more pounds for the football season.
Dergo was averaging well over 200 yards and close to five touchdowns a game en route to setting the all-time single-season scoring record for the state at the time, since he also kicked extra points after all his touchdowns. Oh, yeah, he played safety on defense, too. And punted.
JCA was riding the crest of a 30-game win streak and had future major-league outfielder Joe Benson in the backfield, among other talented backs, and their line was nearly the size of Morris'. It was going to be a war.
The crowd was estimated at nearly 8,000, which, if you have ever been to Morris' stadium, you would know that would safely be described as an overflow crowd. I don't remember what the 50/50 drawing was that night, but I am pretty sure whomever won it was able to take a nice vacation on it.
JCA got the opening kickoff and the Morris defense forced them to punt, with the Redskins taking over on their own 19.
First play, Dergo over the left side. He sprung to the sideline, gave a stutter-step move at midfield and outran the JCA defender into the end zone. One play, 81 yards. Touchdown. Pandemonium is an understatement.
Dergo added a pair of 67-yard touchdown runs in the contest and finished with 354 rushing yards. The threat of his running opened up what little passing game Morris needed, and Donovan Monahan found Cumbie for a 10-yard score.
But, this was JCA, and they werent going away. They made it 28-21 and kept moving the ball. Dergo stopped one Hilltipper drive with an interception in the end zone, but they were driving again at the end of the game. In the final 30 seconds, they threw another pass into the end zone, and the reciever was open. Except Dergo came from seemingly nowhere to rip the ball out of his hands for another end zone pick. He ran it out to the 20 or so with his arms raised high. A kneel-down or two and the fans rushed the field.
The semifinal win over Crystal Lake South and the title game win over Normal Community seemed rather anticlimactic after that. To this day, you can ask anyone in Morris about the 2005 football team and they will say "Is that the one that beat JCA?" instead of "Is that the one that won the 6A title?"