Huntley knows how Class 8A can be the most unforgiving and ruthless bracket in the IHSA football playoffs.
“It’s a gauntlet, no matter what part of the bracket you’re in,” Red Raiders coach Matt Zimolzak said. “It’s a battle no matter where you’re at. That’s what’s great about 8A football, no matter where you’re playing, it’s going to be a great challenge.”
No. 7 Huntley (9-1) breezed through its opener against Chicago Taft, 56-6, but now faces No. 23 Marist (6-4), a perennial Class 8A contender, at 1 p.m. Saturday in Chicago in the second round.
Marist was 8A state runner-up in 2015 and lost in the semifinals in 2017, then in the quarterfinals last year. A victory over the RedHawks would earn Huntley a lot of statewide respect.
“We talked a lot about that as a program,” Zimolzak said. “In order to win a state championship, you have to go through at least one of those Catholic League schools, Brother Rice, Loyola or Marist. Any of those do very well in the playoffs. In order to be a great team, you have to beat the good teams. It’s a good measuring stick for our program.”
Huntley had its best 8A playoff run in 2016, Zimolzak’s first season. The Raiders beat Stevenson, 21-20, on the road, then defeated Fremd, 38-30, in the second round. They lost to Loyola, 24-0, in the quarterfinals.
“We’re trying to start a legacy for our team,” Huntley quarterback Bruno Bosman said. “So if we do this, we might be able to set a trend for [Huntley] teams in the future. We got all the tools we need; it comes down to execution.”
The past two years, Huntley was ousted in the first round. The Raiders suffered a painful 42-38 loss to Edwardsville in 2017, a game in which they led by 17 points in the third quarter. Edwardsville advanced to the quarterfinals that season.
Last year, Maine South rolled past the Raiders, 55-14.
“Every [playoff] win’s a big win for us,” defensive end Brad Walker said. “Just getting further into the playoffs would be great for us because we’ve been a first-round-and-out type of deal. It’s going to be a great game. With the talent we have, I feel like we can make it further.”
The Raiders lost to Jacobs, 14-7, in Week 2, then bounced back with victories over Class 6A powers Prairie Ridge and Cary-Grove. They steamrolled through their last five regular-season games with no trouble.
Marist defeated Loyola, 14-6, in Week 9 just to make the playoffs. The RedHawks played a schedule that also had Chicago Mount Carmel and Nazareth (the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds in 7A), along with Loyola, Brother Rice and Niles Notre Dame, all in the 8A bracket.
“The experience of playing the teams we play throughout the year definitely pays off now,” Marist coach Ron Dawczak said. “We’ve faced some of the best teams in the state, so no matter who we line up against on a weekly basis, we feel we’re prepared and ready to compete no matter what.”
Dawczak thinks the RedHawks’ past playoff success can help to a point.
“It’s nice to see we’ve been able to have success, and our coaches can rely on experience we’ve had in the playoffs in the past, but every team is different,” Dawczak said. “This team gets an opportunity to write their own story. They can’t rely on what happened in the past. They have to take advantage of the opportunities in front of them and make things happen themselves.”
Which is something Huntley still is working on in 8A.
“They have a definite tradition of being in the playoffs,” Zimolzak said of Marist. “Huntley is one of those schools that has started to grow and build its tradition. If we want to be one of those contenders, we have to beat those schools that have been there before.”
The 2016 team was better known for its offense, led by quarterback Eric Mooney. The current team relies on a power running game along with perhaps the best defense Zimolzak has had.
“I don’t think we were nearly as good [in 2016] as we are now,” Zimolzak said. “Our defense is exactly where we want it to be. Our offense is doing what we need it to do at this point of the year. Bruno has done a fantastic job for us, and he’ll do well in the playoffs.”
Zimolzak appreciates the challenge that the defense, particularly on the line, will get from Marist’s offensive line.
“[Class 8A] is definitely a whole other speed,” Walker said. “You get people who match up against you. It’s going to be a battle every time.”