RICHMOND – Richmond-Burton two-way lineman Nick Ross required no time to consider his response when asked what the biggest difference was between this year’s unbeaten Rockets and last year’s Class 4A playoff semifinal team.
“It is being under the influence of [head coach Mike] Noll for a full offseason,” Ross said. “From May to August last year, he turned us into a superpower. Now, having a whole real offseason under him, he’s really turned us around. We’re definitely getting it a lot more, and it’s clicking a lot better than last year.”
That time with Noll’s staff, along with last year’s Class 4A playoff semifinal and the strong core of returning players, have made the Rockets a devastating group so far. R-B, 11-0 for the first time since 2011 and No. 2 seeded in Class 4A’s northern bracket, hosts No. 3-seeded IC Catholic (10-1) in a quarterfinal game at 3 p.m. Saturday.
The Knights have won three consecutive state titles, two in 3A and last year in 4A.
“We can do a lot more stuff on offense,” offensive tackle Conrad Miller said. “We’re another thousand reps into the system. That changes the game. The O-line’s playing lower and more physical. Sizewise we’re similar [to last year], but we’re playing more physical and lower.”
The Rockets have five defensive shutouts and have outscored their opponents, 403-53. Their closest game was a 34-14 victory over Quincy Notre Dame, a Class 3A quarterfinalist, in Week 9.
“It’s the second year, so they really understand the concepts better,” Noll said. “We have a really high football IQ on our defense. They learned the concepts last year, and now they just understand them better. I don’t know how to compare teams, but whoever you are as a coach, Year 2 should be better.”
The Rockets also got a good taste from their deep playoff run. They led IC Catholic, 9-7, in the fourth quarter, but the Knights scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns for a 28-9 victory.
“That gave us a lot of confidence coming into this year, having that big run,” fullback-linebacker Dalton Wood said. “Having that extra knowledge of knowing what winning is like in November is helping us this year.”
Noll, who is 246-73 in 30 seasons, has taken 28 teams between McHenry, Glenbrook South and R-B to the playoffs. Last year was his first time to coach in a semifinal.
“The kids know what it’s like to be in those pressure games,” Noll said. “It gave them something in the offseason to focus on because we didn’t quite get done what we wanted to. We got to practice four more weeks, play four more weeks, learn four more weeks. Just playing those tight games makes you better.”
The players feel better prepared for the level of teams they will see the rest of the way, however many games that may be.
“You can’t assume anything, especially in November when there’s no guarantee for the following week,” Ross said. “You can’t expect to steamroll anyone. No one could have predicted that we were going to beat Marengo, 49-7. No one could have seen that. We had a fantastic week of practice, we came out hard, got on them hard and swarmed everything they were doing on offense. We just have to keep that mentality going into this week.”
Miller knows games are going to keep being more physical.
“Those are big games, big kids we’re playing against,” Miller said. “Everybody’s good once you get to the quarterfinals and semifinals.”
IC Catholic graduated most of its defensive starters from last year, but R-B still must deal with junior running back Kyle Franklin, who has run for 1,452 yards and 25 touchdowns, as well as quarterback Danny Cronin, who has thrown for 1,504 yards and run for 757.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Noll said. “We know IC well because we finished our season there last year. We know how good they are. We know we’ll have to be at our best. The kids are very excited about this, and they should be. They earned it.”