Since 1919, Hilltopper Football has grown to become one of the most recognized programs in America. This is the result of the commitment made by dedicated coaches, devoted families, committed players and faithful followers. Created among them throughout this journey is an unbreakable bond that passes the traditions to each next generation.
The mission of the program is to serve as an educational instrument through which young men experience lessons of spirituality, sacrifice, brotherhood, perseverance and a belief in both humanity and in one’s self. It represents a small part of the educational experience of the spiritual commitment the Sisters of St. Francis, the Christian Brothers and the Carmelites have made to bring the presence of our Lord into the lives of families of the Joliet and Will County area. What has changed little over this measurement of time is the share of common experience, and absolute recognition that each of us is present for service to each other for an unspecified segment of time.
This trip from 1918 through today can go no further without extending a most special thanks to Ron Lawnzack (JCHS ‘56). In the mid-1970s, Ron undertook a three (3) year mission he referred to as a “Labor of Love.” During this mission Ron scrubbed every available source of information including but not limited to, microfilmed news accounts, yearbooks and personal interviews conducted by Ron, to chronicle the history of Hilltopper Football. Ron’s selfless endeavor resulted in an incredible body of work that was published in 1980 as the DeLaSalle-Joliet Catholic High School Football Fact Book. A great deal of Ron’s work has been used as the foundation of this piece. Through the effort and sound memory of many Hilltoppers of yesteryear, the availability of information via archives and the Internet, this piece builds upon Ron’s masterful work. It adds additional accounts of the past and of Hilltopper history that has transpired since the 1980 release of Ron’s work. Again special thanks go to Ron and to the countless supporters who assisted Ron’s mission which luckily captured these special accounts before too many of the men in Hilltopper history left us. Ron remains the official statistician of Hilltopper Football today and is responsible for the Record Book available through Joliet Catholic Academy.
The School History
George Cardinal Mundelein wanted to establish a Catholic High School for boys to serve the catholic population in the growing town of Joliet. The Christian Brothers answered the call and created DeLaSalle High School of Joliet in 1918. The first school year welcomed forty-five (45) students. The location of the school was on what is accounted to be the bluff from which explorer Louis Jolliet and Jesuit Missionary Fr. Jacques Marquette first laid their eyes on the Des Plaines River valley in 1673.
In 1933 the Christian Brothers concluded that the pressures of the school’s growth combined with the realities of the Great Depression made it no longer feasible for their Order to run the school. The Carmelite Fathers of Chicago’s Mt. Carmel High School were encouraged by the Cardinal to take over ownership of the growing High School for boys in Joliet. In August of 1933 the Carmelites purchased the school and in a tribute to the people of Joliet, renamed the school Joliet Catholic High School.
During the DeLaSalle years the school colors were Purple and Gold, the team had no official nickname, but was sometimes referred to as the “Irish.” The athletic teams adopted the Brown and White colors of the Carmelite Order upon their arrival and at that time also took on the nickname “Hilltoppers” to represent the location of the school.
The Carmelites ran the school as an all boys school until its 1990 merger with its all girls sister school St. Francis Academy to form Joliet Catholic Academy. The location of the merged school is the former campus of St. Francis Academy.
The Early Years of Football
An unofficial team played some games in 1919. Earl Gilfillan coached the first official team in 1920. Home games were played at the Richards’ Street Field, which was affectionately called the “Rock Garden.” This site, behind Washington Jr. High School, served as the home field for most home games until 1951, when the Hilltoppers began playing home games in Joliet Memorial Stadium. In 1920, the Hilltoppers/Irish played now familiar Chicago Catholic schools St. Patrick, St. Rita and DeLaSalle.
Additionally, the Hilltoppers also played neighboring Lockport Township High School in the 1920 season. They then played the Porters in all but seven (7) seasons between 1920 and 1981. The only years in that period that the two did not play in were 1921, 1935, 1938, 1939, 1948, 1964, and 1965. The forty-eight (48) games between them are the most the Hilltoppers have played against any opponent.
In the spring of 1921, a class of ten (10) students were the first graduates of DeLaSalle. In the Fall of 1921 the Martin Gleason led team joined the Chicago Catholic League. Gleason also served as the Head Coach in 1922. Fred Larson served as Head Coach in 1923. Barney Grogran was Head Coach in 1924 and led the Hilltoppers to their first winning season by posting a 5-1-1 mark. Francis Dailey was the coach in 1925.
First year Coach John Carroll’s undefeated (5-0) 1926 squad established what will remain an unbreakable record and serve as a goal of all Hilltopper teams: They shut out every opponent. Carroll remained Head Coach through the 1934 season and posted a 22-39-1 record.
Under Carroll’s leadership the 1928 Hilltoppers played Mt. Carmel and scored a 12-0 victory in the inaugural game of what has become one of the most intense rivalries in the nation. In a November 14, 1994 issue of Sports Illustrated, in which writer John Walters covered the nation’s best High School Football rivalries in the article Unrivaled Rivalries, Joliet Catholic versus Mt. Carmel was one of eleven cited. Of note reads the sentence: “This series was suspended for eight years in the 1980s after a fight nearly erupted between the schools’ priests.” The thirty-six (36) games played against Mt. Carmel ranks second only to Lockport in the number of games played against an opponent. In 1934 Carroll’s final squad lost to St. Hedewige of South Bend in a game played in Notre Dame Stadium.
Fr. Gilbert Burns replaced Carroll and served until 1941. A 6-0 loss to rival Mt. Carmel stood between Burns’ 1939 Hilltoppers and an undefeated season. That single loss also prevented the Hilltoppers from appearing in the Chicago Prep Bowl, which at that time was one of the nation’s most prestigious athletic events, on any level. The Prep Bowl of that era consistently drew over 100,000 spectators to Chicago’s Soldier Field to watch the Catholic League Champ take on the Champion of the Chicago Public League.
Owen McCarthy, Thomas Dowd and C.H. Parcells each coached one season during the World War II years of the early to mid-1940s. Stan Sosnouski and Bob White both served as Head Coach for two seasons a piece in the mid-to-late 1940’s. The 1940s were dark years for Hilltopper Football.
The early years of Hilltopper Football were sometimes difficult for the new and growing school. Throughout these years, the Hilltoppers were known for their aggressive, hard-nosed play. The annual bragging rights battle with Lockport was often the season highlight. The program produced just seven (7) winning seasons between 1920 and 1949 (’24, ’26, ’27, ’33, ’36, ’37 & ’39). The Hilltoppers joined the IHSA in 1948 and ended their association with the Chicago Catholic League. They played as an Independent until joining the Suburban Catholic Conference in 1960.
When Winning Became Tradition
The fortunes of Hilltopper football changed dramatically in 1950. Starting with the 1950 season, the Hilltoppers went on to post eight straight winning seasons. The Hilltoppers had only one losing season in the next fifty-five (55) years. Since 1950 and heading into the 2005 season, the Hilltoppers have a 472-117-11 record for a .785 winning percentage. The all-time program record is 546-266-24 in 837 games for a .652 winning percentage.
As the 1950s began, JCHS began a hiring string of three straight coaches who each had a dramatic impact on the winning tradition of Hilltopper Football: Gene Dwyer, Phil Cantwell and Ernie Zaleski.
In 1950 Dwyer took over as the Hilltopper Head Coach. In addition to being a star End at St. Ambrose College, Dwyer was drafted in the 1948 Pro Draft by the Chicago Cardinals. Dwyer had served as the Line Coach for Bob White’s 1949 Hilltopper squad.
According to Herald News accounts, Dwyer set out to establish an entire program and in so doing, had his Frosh-Soph team practice with the Varsity for the first two weeks of the 1950 season. His objective was to have all players in the program understand the same plays. This consistency throughout the program was viewed to be a tool used to better prepare his younger players for the Varsity level whether as a call-up that year, or in future years.
The new coach with a new approach fueled optimism and excitement. A story in the Tuesday August 15, 1950 Herald News announced that Athletic Director Fr. De Sales Snyder enlisted the help of 15 alumni and friends to set out on an aggressive season ticket campaign for the 1950 season. The season’s schedule was dubbed as “one of the toughest Catholic High had faced in years” as the Hilltoppers would be playing three teams that they had never played before: Rock Island Allmen, West Chicago and Thornton Fractional of Calumet City. The Herald News projected that the season “outcome was doubtful; the inevitable lack of experience will overshadow and threaten the Catholic High gridders throughout the season” the paper quoted Dwyer.
Of equal excitement that preseason was a groundswell of support from the people of Joliet for a first ever match up between the Hilltoppers and the Joliet Township Steelmen. The September 13, 1950 Herald News account of the September 12, 1950 Joliet Township High School Board of Education meeting chronicled the discussion about the feasibility of allowing JT to compete with the Hilltoppers. Two board members are on record stating that they had received many questions asking why the two schools were not competing. According to the Herald News account, the JT Superintendent explained that the competition between the two schools was being approached gradually. “For years they have met on the Golf Course and with JCHS in the IHSA, the schools had crossed bats on the baseball diamond and were pitted against each other on the Tennis Court. By starting with the minor sports we hope to work into the major ones and gradually get the community adjusted to such competition.” The Herald News article also reported that the Board agreed that there would be one major problem: “Spectator Participation.” A Board member stated, “Before any such major games were scheduled it would be with the understanding that any undue enthusiasm on the part of the spectators would result in a cancellation of any future contests.” After much discussion the JT Board of Education “went on record as sanctioning competition between the two schools.” A proposed 1950 game between the two schools did not materialize.
JCHS had planned to play its 1950 home games at Lewis College but when it was determined that lighting costs would be too expensive, the Richards’ Street Field was then used. Because of a scheduling conflict with the Richards’ Street Field, the 1950 game versus Lockport at Lockport was actually a Hilltopper home game. Dwyer’s team established a ground game much stronger than Hilltopper teams of the past. His squad improved each week and posted an impressive 8-2 record. Only a season opening 7-6 loss at Rock Island Allmen and a late season 12-7 home loss to Argo stood between the Hilltoppers and an undefeated season. 1950 was Dwyer’s first and only year as Head Coach.
Cantwell replaced Dwyer in 1951. Cantwell came to JCHS from Notre Dame where he played and coached under Frank Leahy. His 1951 team opened the new Joliet Memorial Stadium with a 12-7 victory over Quad Cities power Rock Island Allmen Catholic High School. Joliet Memorial Stadium has been home to the Hilltoppers ever since. 1951 also saw the first of the JT series and saw the Steelmen record a 12-0 win. The Hilltoppers posted a 7-2 record in 1951 and a 6-3 mark in 1952. Cantwell’s 1953 team posted the Hilltoppers’ first undefeated season since 1926. In that 1953 season, the Hilltoppers posted their first ever victory over defending Big-8 Champion Joliet Township High School. The Hilltoppers out-gained the Steelmen by 102 yards in the 21-19 victory. Joliet Township had defeated the Hilltoppers in 1951 and again in 1952. After the 1953 victory, the Hilltoppers went on to establish a 44-8-2 record against JT schools. In his three years as head coach (’51-’53), Cantwell’s teams compiled a 20-5 record.
Cantwell left “the Hill” and became the program architect and Head Coach of Bishop Amat Memorial High School in suburban Los Angeles. Cantwell led Bishop Amat to a CIF (California Interscholastic Federation) Sectional Championship in 1961, in only the school’s fifth year of existence. In the State of California, Sectional Championships are the state’s highest title. Today Bishop Amat is generally regarded as one of the top echelon programs in the nation. History has shown how truly instrumental Cantwell was in developing two of the nation’s most successful High School Football programs. The Bishop Amat rivalry with Santa Fe Springs St. Paul was one of the other ten rivalries in the nation cited in the previously mentioned Sports Illustrated article.
Zaleski, who had also played under Leahy at Notre Dame, replaced Cantwell for the 1954 season and kept the Hilltoppers on their winning course by posting a 24-13-4 record over 5 seasons. Zaleski’s teams effectively moved the ball through the air. His teams were 4-0-1 versus JT and 4-1 versus Lockport, firmly establishing the Hilltoppers as the area’s team to beat. The Hilltoppers played the 1950s as an Independent and requiring travel to Indiana and Iowa to secure games.
The Hilltoppers were now winning consistently and a man who spent the 1950’s in roles as the Hilltopper Frosh-Soph coach, an Assistant Coach at Lewis College and a Varsity Assistant at JCHS was waiting in the wings to become the head coach for the next 27 seasons.
The Quest for Excellence
Through his accomplished multi-sport coaching career, Gordon Gillespie has had a profound impact on many with whom he has associated. The list of his former players and former assistant coaches who have gone on to coaching success at all levels in several sports is both lengthy and impressive. The list of men to whom his inspiration has driven into other successful endeavors in life is limitless. His impact on the Joliet community and High School Football in Illinois cannot be overstated.
There is no praise more genuine than that of a rival. In the October 3, 2003 edition of the Northwest Indiana Times on the eve of the game between the Spartans and the Hilltoppers, 27 year veteran Marian Catholic Head Coach Dave Mattio recalled that Gordie Gillespie was the man who drew others’ admiration. “I was a brash punk kid when I took the program over (in 1976), and I didn’t know my fanny from a hole in the ground,” Mattio said. “I saw this guy on the other sideline, and I viewed his success as a stumbling block to what we wanted to accomplish. “But he was more like a mentor to me, by example and demeanor, than anybody I can recall. I enjoyed the toughness his kids played with and his innovations.”
Gillespie’s mastery is legendary. Many believe that Gillespie did not coach, but rather taught. In this spirit of reference, like any great teacher, he was an outstanding and committed student of his subject. He studied the greatest and most innovative coaches of the day and of the past. He then took the best of what he had learned from his study and combined it with what he had learned personally playing for, and coaching with, other coaching legends. He had the vision and acumen to combine strategy, preparation, constant innovation and motivation. By hitting this remarkable balance, Gillespie achieved an unparalleled level of success. The coaching profession has many individuals who have mastered one or two of these key ingredients, but a very few have successfully combined them all.
Gillespie and his staff also stressed that his players display dignity, character and sportsmanship.
Recognizing that they were leading average 16, 17 & 18 year old boys, Gillespie demanded a commitment to excellence from his assistants. They strived to put players in the best possible position to succeed. His vision and optimism instilled a positive outlook, which is critical to success in any endeavor. Gillespie brought out the best in his assistants and players through encouragement, discipline, unyielding preparation and exhausting repetition. Practice sessions were structured to assure each aspect of the game received proper attention and the allotment of time devoted to each was scheduled down to the minute. Through this, Gillespie subtly communicated to his assistants and players that he was in control of the situation. This sense of confidence spread among them no matter how dire circumstances might be. They always believed their leader had a solution. The result was a spirit of teamwork and unconditional commitment. Gillespie demanded just one simple thing from his players: All out, every play.
His sense for the need for constant innovation allowed him to operate on a plane that appeared to be one step ahead of the game. His game planning was thorough and always included elements of calculated risk. His preparation put pressure on opposing teams requiring them to prepare as tirelessly as he had prepared his coaches and his players.
His running and passing game both evolved through the years. Many long time observers recall how the traditional Power-I Offense became a Power-I/T-formation with motion and later evolved into the Double-Wing. What was remarkable to many was that these changes occurred in the flow of the program and did not represent dramatic changes, simply modifications and constant improvements. Offensive players recall the time devoted to practicing timing, to ensure assignments were executed perfectly. Every player had a specific and meaningful assignment in each play for which each of his steps was scripted. This was choreographed to include the movement and assignment of the other ten players. The skills of opposing players were taken into account. It was rare for Gillespie’s staff to ask the undoable from a player; instead extra preparation and precise adjustments were made to neutralize the strengths of an opponent. Assignments on the same play often changed weekly and even during games. His teams took downfield blocking to a level that was very rarely seen at the High School level, even today. A perfectly executed play fake carried as much importance as the play’s spring block. The players and coaches learned that their success was dependant on others. In this lesson of team work eleven were truly one. The Hilltoppers have never worn “stars” on their helmets to signify individual achievements and have never had players’ names on their jerseys.
Defensively his teams were positioned to stop the run and designed to keep blockers away from the Hilltoppers’ best athletes and thereby maximizing those players’ abilities to make high impact plays. The defensive philosophy of forcing an opponent to win by completing low percentage passes was another calculated risk that his staff and teams worked diligently to master. As the passing game began to progress at the High School level, Gillespie encouraged his defensive coaches to adopt a defensive scheme that put overwhelming pressure on a passer, challenging the opponent’s player to make quick and difficult decisions.
The Gordie Gillespie Era
The development of the Interstate Highway system brought positive changes to the Joliet area. The nation’s major East-West Interstate (I-80) started in New York City and extended to San Francisco. It would connect with a major North-South Interstate (I-55) in Joliet. As a result, the area experienced a tremendous industrial expansion and subsequent population boom. The school’s enrolment had reached an all-time high of over 900 boys in the early 1960s.
After suffering through a losing record in his first season (2-6-1), Gillespie’s Hilltoppers ran off 26 straight winning seasons while the coach compiled a 222-54-7 career record which ranks as one of the highest winning percentages in the history of Illinois High School Football. When long time Chicago Prep Sports writer Taylor Bell selected the Chicago Sun Times Illinois High School Football Team of the Century, he chose Gillespie as its Head Coach.
In 1960 the Hilltoppers joined the Suburban Catholic Conference. Conference play, for the first time in twelve (12) years, had the Hilltoppers now playing consistent state rated power Notre Dame of Niles (who the Hilltoppers first faced in 1957). Notre Dame defeated the Hilltoppers in 1959 and won four-of-ten SCC titles in the 1960s. Old rival Marmion of Aurora was also a conference foe. The Hilltoppers had gone 6-4-1 in eleven (11) games against Marmion played between 1933 and 1959. As SCC foes, the two schools continued to play very competitive games and often played the role of spoiler in each other’s seasons. The Carmelites opened Carmel High School for boys in Mundelein in 1961. The Corsairs of Carmel entered the Suburban Catholic Conference in 1966 and were quickly a formidable foe, finishing in the top third of the conference standings in their first two seasons as another rivalry among the Carmelite Order schools was born.
Gillespie’s teams of the early 1960s were teams with powerful ground games and finished in the top half of the Suburban Catholic Conference their first four (4) years in the league finishing 3rd in 1960, 2nd in 1961 and 1962, and 3rd again in 1964. As the early 1960s progressed, Gillespie began to utilize the passing game more aggressively. When his program and personnel developed to where he believed passing could be an effective and reliable part of his offense, he made a dramatic shift. In 1965 the Hilltoppers increased the frequency of the pass by over 60% from the previous season.
In 1965 the Hilltoppers started the season winning seven straight games. In week # 8 they entered the 4th Quarter of the game at Notre Dame trailing 10-0. They rallied to score 19 points for the 19-10 win. The victory was followed by an 18-13 win over Marmion and a season ending 20-7 victory over cross town rival Joliet Township. The Hilltoppers finished at 10-0 and won their first ever Conference Title. During that season, only Marmion scored more than one touchdown. The 10-0 record was also their first unbeaten season in twelve (12) years and was the first of six (6) undefeated seasons under Gillespie’s leadership.
In 1966 a lone 20-0 loss to local rival Lockport (who finished 8-1) in week # 2 was the only thing that prevented the Hilltoppers from back-to-back perfect seasons as they ended with an 8-1 record. The 19-7 season opening defeat of JT West in the inaugural game between the two and the 33-0 week # 5 win at rival Marmion were season highlights. The Hilltoppers shared the conference title with Notre Dame. The two schools did not play in 1966 and both ended their seasons with 7-0 conference records.
The 1967 squad defeated JT West in the second straight opener 25-6 and then rolled through the season to finish with a perfect 9-0 record. The 20-14 week # 2 victory over Lockport and the 20-19 win versus Wheaton St. Francis were the only games in which opponents got within three scores of the Hilltoppers. The season ended with a third straight SCC Crown and the program’s fourth undefeated season.
The Hilltoppers 27-1 record during that three (3) year run was the best window of success the Hilltopper program had ever known and occurred before the IHSA State Playoff system. Gillespie and many others believed these teams were State Championship caliber. Their success became the standard by which all future Hilltopper teams would be measured. The Hilltopper passing game had developed and was effectively used like no other time before. Its proficiency and productivity would not be eclipsed until the 1980s. Most importantly it gave the program a very successful reference point from which to build future offensive strategy.
The Marmion rivalry grew more intense when alum (JCHS ’56), former quarterback and former Hilltopper Assistant Coach Matt Laurich took the Head Coaching job at Marmion. Laurich’s 1968 Cadets fell behind the Hilltoppers 32-0 at Halftime and roared back to score 34 unanswered points to defeat the Hilltoppers 34-32. The Hilltoppers entered that game 5-1 and had been 32-2 over the previous thirty-four (34) games. Stung by the loss, the Hilltoppers fell the following week to Wheaton St. Francis before bouncing back to defeat Benet and finish the 1968 season at 6-3.
The Hilltoppers continued to compete with Lockport and JT as non-conference opponents. In this period only two things mattered: Being a Conference Champion and defeating your area rivals.
Due to the growth in the area, in 1964 the two new Joliet Township High Schools were opened — JT West and JT East. Each of the three JT High Schools had enrollments around 2,000 students. The Hilltoppers began competing with the new Joliet Township schools on the Football field in 1966. The Hilltoppers then rotated their available non-conference date among the original JT (now called JT Central) and the two new schools.
The Illini-8 Years
After the 1969 season, the Hilltoppers left the Suburban Catholic Conference and joined the Illini-8 Conference. In addition to the three (3) Joliet Schools, Lockport, Lockport West (now Romeoville), Marian Catholic (which had opened in 1958 and began playing Varsity Football in 1960) and Argo of Summit (who the Hilltoppers had played four times in the late 1940s and early 1950s) joined the Hilltoppers to form the Illini-8 Conference.
From the beginning the Hilltoppers dominated the league. The Hilltoppers won the very first Illini-8 crown and won a total of eight (8) outright Championships and were Co-Champions in two (2) other seasons. Only once in the eleven-year existence of the Illini-8 Conference did the Hilltoppers not finish as Conference Champions.
In the 1960s, Professional and Major College programs had moved to the two-platoon system. Gillespie quickly followed this trend and by the 1970s, had become one of the first coaches in Illinois to employ a two-platoon system at the High School level. He rarely deviated from this and only with a few exceptional players did he. By the mid-1970s the team actually traveled to away games on designated buses: One for Offense, one for Defense.
By entering the Illini-8, the Hilltoppers were now playing in conference games against long time local rivals. This provided the opportunity to schedule new opponents for non-conference games. Throughout Gillespie’s coaching career, regardless of sport, his philosophy relative to competition was simple: Challenge yourself by playing the best competition you could schedule. It was the only way to know how his team measured up as the State Playoffs did not begin until 1974. Gillespie scheduled non-conference games with what were regarded as the best Football programs from some the largest schools in the state: East Leyden coached by the legendary Jack Leese, with an enrollment of 3,000; Lyons Township with 5,000 students and Downers Grove South with an enrollment of 2,900. Gillespie’s Hilltoppers went 2-2 versus Downers Grove South, 1-1 versus Lyons Township and lost their only meeting with East Leyden.
The teams of the early 1970s were strong defensively and explosive offensively logging a 29-6-2 record from 1970-1973. The 1972 squad’s 12-6 loss at Mundelein Carmel was the only blemish and the only game the Hilltoppers allowed a team to score twice. Along their march to an 8-1 record, they shut out five (5) opponents and allowed the remaining three (3) to score just once. The 1973 team squad went 9-1 losing only to Romeoville 16-6. Romeoville and Downers Grove South were the only teams to score twice as the team shout out four (4) opponents and held four (4) others to just one score. The Hilltoppers did not lose a home game from 1971 until the 1979 season.
As the 1970s progressed, Bolingbrook entered the Illini-8 (making a nine team conference with an eight team name) and the Hilltoppers had just one available non-conference opening (week # 8) in 1975 and 1976. The Hilltoppers played 3,200 student Aurora West in those years and won both games.
Argo left the Illini-8 before the 1977 season giving the Hilltoppers two non-conference games. The West Aurora series ended in 1976. Richards and West Chicago were scheduled as the Hilltoppers non-conference opponents for the 1977 and 1978 seasons. The Hilltoppers went 2-0 versus both Richards and West Chicago. The 1978 victory was over the Richards team that finished the year as Class 5A semifinalists. West Chicago had won the inaugural 1974 3A State Title. In keeping with his play the best available opponent philosophy, Gillespie closed out the 1970s by scheduling Chicago Catholic League power St. Laurence and old Hilltopper rival Mt. Carmel. Throughout the 1970s the enrollment at JCHS was in the range of 700-750 boys.
The State Playoffs Are Born
The belief that luck is what occurs when preparation meets opportunity was certainly reinforced at Joliet Catholic High School when the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) concluded that in 1974, the time had arrived to stage a playoff system for Football to crown State Champions. Like any great leader, Gillespie had a clear and concise mission statement: We have one goal and that is to win a State Championship. That became the mission in 1974 and remains the same simple mission today.
The IHSA constructed its playoff system to have five classes of qualifiers, categorized by enrollment (5A-1A). Each of these five (5) classes was to have just sixteen (16) schools participate in a single elimination tournament, for an 80 team total. The IHSA invited all conference champions to participate. After all of the state’s Conference Champions were accounted for, the IHSA had a few openings remaining. The IHSA then looked at conference co-champions to fill those spots. If the co-champion had a 9-0 or 8-1 record, they would be considered for the few “at large” berths that were spread among the five classes. This structure placed a premium on every regular season game. Through 1995, the first game of the playoffs was played on the Wednesday after the end of the regular season and the second round games were played on the Saturday three days later. This was changed in an effort to reduce injuries.
Locally many believed that Gillespie had developed one of the best programs in the state, yet his teams received only marginal mention when the purported experts discussed High School football in Illinois. That was about to change. Dramatically.
The 1974 Hilltoppers began the season with losses to Lyons Township and East Leyden. The Hilltoppers were upended in week # 3 by JT West. It marked one of only two Tiger victories in the bitter local rivalry. The Hilltoppers rebounded and ran the table on the remaining Illini-8 opponents, including a 22-16 overtime victory over Marian at Bloom High School in Chicago Heights in what many long time observers have called the hardest hitting Hilltopper game in history. Regrettably, several players from both teams were taken away by ambulance. JT West lost two times along their Illini-8 route so the conference season ended with the Hilltoppers atop the conference with 6-1 conference record. The Hilltoppers represented the Illini-8 in the State of Illinois’ very first post-season playoffs. The Hilltoppers won the Wednesday afternoon game, before falling in the 2nd Round 28-20 on a very windy November Saturday in Barrington. Gillespie would have to wait one more year.
State Championship Football
The 1975 Hilltoppers returned an experienced squad, as a large number of under-classmen had seen significant time in the 1974 season. Equipped with what Gillespie later claimed to be his best squad ever, the Hilltoppers marched through the regular season. The closest an opponent got to the Hilltoppers was the 20-0 score of the West Aurora game. The Hilltoppers also avenged the previous season’s loss to JT West by accumulating 24 First Downs and 438 yards of offense in defeating the Tigers 40-6.
The Hilltoppers entered the playoffs at 9-0 and rolled in the Wednesday afternoon game. It is rare for a season to pass without having a tight game, and in 1975, that game was Hillcrest. Two of the top rated teams in the state faced off at Joliet Memorial Stadium. In addition to 10,000 fans on hand to watch, reporters from the big three Chicago Papers – Tribune, Sun Times and Daily News – were present; that was a first. Leading 20-14 late in the game, the Hilltoppers found themselves deep in their own territory. In a stunning move, Gillespie elected to take an intentional safety. The two points surrendered proved to be the right decision after the Hilltoppers boomed a free kick from the 20-yard line and the Hilltopper Defense held on for the 20-16 victory.
Another crowd of 10,000 witnessed the home victory over Naperville Central the following week. The Chicago newspaper contingent was also back in town. The win secured a spot in the 4A Championship game at ISU. All boys Springfield Griffin Catholic High School was the opponent. The Hilltoppers played a near perfect game on a sunny Saturday before Thanksgiving and scored a 34-14 victory. The game’s broadcast on television, when just 5 VHF and 3 UHF channels existed, exposed the state to the Hilltoppers’ innovative style of play which utilized shifts and motion in a manner that was rarely used by High School teams of that era. Fittingly, 1975 was the year that the Victory Light became part of the uniform replacing the “C” on the sides of the helmets.
The victory resulted in the town fathers of Joliet heaping honors on the boys. The Hilltoppers were truly the toast of the town. While reminiscing about all of the championships previously won by city organizations in music and athletic competitions, the City of Joliet then proudly dubbed itself the City of Champions. This achievement was also a very special source of pride throughout the Carmelite Order.
The 1976 season rolled along in a similar fashion to 1975 until a 14-8 scare at Romeoville. With one of the most productive ground games in Hilltopper history leading the way, the Hilltoppers looked poised to make a run at repeating as Champions. Then on a rainy Saturday afternoon in Chicago Heights, Marian handed the Hilltoppers a 16-6 defeat in week # 7. With the playoffs now just a slim hope, the players were told before their week # 8 West Aurora game, “Now you are playing for pride.” The Hilltoppers responded with a 26-8 win and the following week closed out the regular season with a 22-6 victory over Lockport. The team left the Memorial Stadium field after the Lockport victory at 8-1, believing they would be watching the playoffs.
They awoke Saturday morning and learned that JT Central had defeated Marian the night before. This left three (3) teams in a three-way tie for the conference title with identical 7-1 conference records. The Hilltoppers and JT Central had 8-1 season records, while Marian’s stood at 7-2. The Illini-8 had to determine a conference representative and submit the name to the IHSA as the Conference Champion. Officials of the Illini-8 met on Saturday. By the IHSA formula, the Hilltoppers and JT Central would get bids. The Hilltoppers were designated the conference representative and JT Central (Coached by JCHS ’53 Alum George Legan) was given an “at large” bid. Marian Catholic was out.
The Hilltoppers opened with a 28-14 victory in the rematch with Hillcrest and a round # 2 win over Lake Park. The Semi-Finals had # 1 ranked Rockford Boylan traveling to Joliet. Boylan was the Class 5A Runner-Up the year before having lost a heart-breaking 14-7 title game to top ranked Deerfield. Another 10,000 spectators and the now familiar press core was on hand. In one of the most thrilling games ever played in Joliet, the Hilltoppers marched 82 yards to score a TD and a dramatic two-point conversion in the final minutes of the game to secure an 8-7 win. They were on their way back to ISU to defend the title. In freezing rain on a frozen Astroturf field and on televisions throughout the state, the Hilltoppers scored with two minutes left and defeated Danville 16-8 to become the first team in Illinois history to successfully defend a state football title.
The importance of the first two championships in the annals of Hilltopper Football is immeasurable. Without a single championship, the thought of defending a title is a moot point. Without a two straight, a three-peat is also moot. Hilltopper Football had made a mark.
The 1977 team scored on a blocked punt to defeat Richards in week # 1, crushed West Chicago 44-8 in week # 2 and then ran the table on the Illini-8. The only conference team to score was Romeoville who scored 6 points. With a balanced offense that caught fire behind a large line and skilled depth in the backfield, the regular season ended with the Hilltoppers outscoring opponents 278-22. The team was primed for the playoffs scoring 118 points while yielding just 24 points over four playoff games. The team finished 13-0 defeating LaSalle-Peru 30-6 in the 4A Championship game.
The 1978 squad is remembered as the team that went through the playoffs without giving up a single point. Lost in that look-back is how the team leveraged the experience gained in the 1977 season by the then Juniors, and how deep the team was on both sides of the ball. Only rival Marian Catholic played the Hilltoppers closely in the 14-6 week # 4 Hilltopper victory. An emotional 28-0 week # 6 victory at Lockport highlighted the regular season. Lockport had one of the most talented teams in their history and believed that they were positioned to knock-off the Hilltoppers. With the long rivalry and a handful of Lockport residents on the Hilltopper team, the build up was the biggest local game in years. The Hilltoppers remained focused throughout the week and come game time, mixed timely passing with a sound running game while the Defense held the Porters to under 100 yards of offense.
The postseason saw the Hilltoppers shutout West Chicago during the Wednesday afternoon game in Joliet and Rich Central on the road three days later. On turf befitting Augusta, the Hilltoppers posted a Semi-Final shutout victory at Lake Forest High School. The season ended with the Hilltoppers again defeating LaSalle-Peru 25-0, for their fourth straight Class 4A State Championship. On the season the team outscored opponents 387-38. The Hilltoppers finished rated #2 in the Chicago papers behind 13-0 5A Champion St. Rita. It was the highest ranking a Hilltopper team had ever been given. From week # 8 in 1976 through the 1978 season the Hilltoppers had compiled a 32 game winning streak, which at the time was the fifth longest in IHSA history.
1979 was the year the Hilltoppers began competing against Chicago Catholic League opponents for the first time since 1947. At the time, the Chicago Catholic League was widely regarded as the best High school Football conference in the nation. The Hilltoppers lost to a Mike O’Neill coached and eventual 1979 5A Runner Up, St. Laurence in week # 1. Old rival Mt. Carmel defeated the Hilltoppers 24-16 in week # 2. The Hilltoppers bounced back in week # 3 defeating JT West 42-8 and won five more conference games. A 19-6 loss to Lockport in week # 7 left the Hilltoppers with a 6-3 record and tied with the Porters as Illini-8 co-champions with both having 6-1 conference records. With Lockport having won the head-to-head match, the Porters went into the 16-team 4A Playoff’s as the Illini-8 representative. The two non-conference losses prohibited the Hilltoppers from receiving an “at large” playoff berth. The team was invited to participate in the Prep Bowl Playoffs, won the Catholic playoff bracket and in a blizzard, lost to Public League Champ Julian an overtime game at Soldier Field.
The 1980 squad went 5-4 and did not make the playoffs. Injuries and many underclassmen playing for the first time combined to take their toll. Losses were to St. Laurence, Lockport, eventual 1980 5A State Champion Mt. Carmel, and 4A Semi-Finalist 11-1 Marian Catholic. 1980 was also the year that the IHSA Playoffs expanded to six classes.
A Fitting End to Illini-8 Football
The 1981 season goes down as one of the most memorable journeys in the history of the program. Before the season began it was announced that the 1981 season would be the last for the Illini-8 Conference. The School Board of Joliet Township High School had closed JT East, Romeoville had left the Illini-8 for the SICA, joining Argo (who had left the Illini-8 for the SICA before the 1977 season) and to where the remaining Public Schools of the Illini-8 would go at season’s end. As a result, the Hilltoppers had to schedule four (4) non-conference games.
The Hilltoppers opened the season with wins over St. Laurence and defending 5A Champion Mt. Carmel. Week # 3 was a victory over Chicago Public League Champion Julian. A trip to Milwaukee and a victory over eventual 1981 Wisconsin State Champion Thomas More followed. The Hilltoppers finished the regular season going 5-0 against the remaining Illini-8 teams and not allowing any of them to score more than once. The playoffs rolled along with the Hilltoppers handily defeating all opponents.
Before 20,000 spectators and an unprecedented media presence, the Hilltoppers faced off against Deerfield for the 5A State Championship at Northwestern University’s Dyche Stadium. Deerfield was undefeated and coached by legendary Paul Adams. This match up pitted two of the most successful coaches of the time as Adams’ Deerfield program had built a 12-3 playoff record. His teams won the 5A State Title game in 1975 over Rockford Boylan, and finished as 5A Runner Up in 1977 to Jack Leese’s East Leyden squad. Adams’ 1979 team lost in the 5A Semi-Finals to eventual Runner Up St. Laurence.
The Hilltoppers entered the 4th Quarter trailing 7-0 and mounted a length of field, 4th Quarter march where off-tackle left and off-tackle right were the only two plays called the entire series. These plays produced over 5 yards per play. After scoring to cut the lead to 7-6, another off-tackle play scored the 2-point conversion and gave the Hilltoppers an 8-7 lead. Deerfield had one late drive that ended when a Field Goal attempt went wide, sealing the victory for Gillespie’s squad. The Class 5A Championship was the Hilltoppers fifth in the first eight (8) years of the IHSA Playoffs. It was also the program’s eighth undefeated season.
The East Suburban Catholic Conference
For the 1982 season the Hilltoppers joined the East Suburban Conference re-joining old foes, Niles Notre Dame, Mundelein Carmel, Holy Cross and Chicago St. Patrick (who the Hilltoppers first played in 1921). St. Laurence and Mt. Carmel remained non-conference opponents.
The 1982-1985 years produced some of the most potent teams in Hilltopper history. Gillespie took the passing game to new heights and achieved proficiency via the air surpassing even the great 1960s powerhouse squads. Though none of the four squads made it to the State Finals, they posted a combined 42-5 mark. In three of those four seasons the Hilltoppers entered their last game of the season undefeated.
1982 opened with victories over St. Laurence 10-7 and a 32-7 road win over Mt. Carmel. The ESCC opener was a tight 34-30 squeaker on Chicago’s Southside over a very talented Marist air attack. The Hilltoppers then rolled through the remaining conference schedule to capture their first ESCC Championship. Mt. Carmel avenged their week # 2 loss by shocking the Hilltoppers with a 28-22 surprise in the 2nd Round match up in Joliet, spoiling the Hilltoppers’ bid to repeat as Class 5A Champions. This was the game made famous by Mt. Carmel removing the shoulders pads and jersey’s as time ran out to display T-shirts proclaiming that they had beaten Joliet Catholic. Recall what Sport Illustrated captured so well in so few words. 1982 was also the first year of the USA Today National Prep Poll and despite the season ending loss, the Hilltoppers were ranked # 19 nationally in the final USA Today poll.
1983 opened with another tight victory over St. Laurence, 12-7. As the series had progressed, St. Laurence realized that games between the two in Joliet would draw a big gate. With no home field yet built, St. Laurence chose to rent Memorial Stadium to host their home games against the Hilltoppers. This proved a profitable move as 8,000-9,000 turned out each year to witness this season opener pitting two of the most successful programs of the day.
The Hilltoppers replaced Mt. Carmel with old foe Marian Catholic. This allowed the Hilltoppers to renew and preserve the rivalry that had begun in 1970 between the two schools that shared a mutual respect. The two schools continued to play as non-conference opponents until Marian was admitted to the ESCC in 1990. When the Illini-8 broke up Marian was without a conference. For eight years the Spartans were forced to play as Independent.
The Hilltoppers rolled through the ESCC and claimed their second straight conference crown. They then had tight playoff victories at home against Sterling 26-21 and at Peoria Richwoods 28-21. On a cold and rainy November day, an undefeated Hilltopper squad went to Bartonville-Limestone to face a 9-2 host. To this day, old time Hilltopper followers remember that on this day the host team brought an all out, nothing to lose approach to the game. The community had swollen with pride and their players fed off of the excitement. The Hilltoppers caught their best effort and Bartonville-Limestone scored a 31-28 victory. Bartonville finished as 5A Runner Up, losing 21-7 to Glenbard West of Glen Ellyn.
1984 started like 1983 with a tight 8-3 victory over St. Laurence and a 28-14 win over Marian. St. Viator held close before falling 14-0. The Hilltoppers rolled to their fourth straight undefeated regular season and third straight ESCC Championship. The passing game continued to develop, resulting in an opened up running game. The Double Wing offense was here to stay. After two playoff victories, an away loss in the Semi-Finals to Peoria Richwoods prevented the Hilltoppers from returning to a State Championship game. The next week Richwoods won the 5A Title.
1985 began with a 15-14 loss to St. Laurence. From there the Hilltoppers marched to their fourth straight ESCC conference crown. The Offense was clicking, putting up both big scores and big yardage. The season was marked by the Hilltoppers holding four of eight conference opponents scoreless and limiting the other four to just one score each. Two straight playoff victories were followed by a date with undefeated Rich East in Round # 3. On a rainy, muddy Saturday afternoon in Park Forest, the 260-95 yard advantage in yardage was not enough. Drive killing turnovers gave the opportunistic Rich East ball club just enough and they held on for a 14-8 win.
Gillespie left the Joliet Catholic program after the 1985 season to construct the brand new football program at the College of St. Francis in Joliet. In the mid-1970s he had moved to St. Francis from Lewis University to build the St. Francis baseball program. St. Francis had recently gone co-ed after being an all girls college since its 1920 opening. In addition to the many lives he touched, and lessons he taught to so many, Gillespie left the Hilltopper program and community with an understanding of excellence. His leadership demonstrated to players, parents, coaches, teachers and administrators what focused work and commitment can yield. His impact is immeasurable. Gillespie left the football program with one more gift and it remains a constant and very simply stated goal: To win the next State Championship.
In 2000, several former coaches and supporters joined the large turnout of members from the 1970s State Championship teams to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the School’s first football State Championship. Though these men had spread around the world, they returned home as successful leaders of families, accomplished professionals in the fields of law, education, business, finance, science, medicine and construction. Several among them were also civic leaders and elected officials. After the team captains recounted stories of days gone by through which life long lessons were learned, it was Gillespie’s turn to speak. He shared his timely wit with the group one more time and then sincerely expressed how deeply he appreciated the opportunity to coach these men when they were merely boys. He concluded with one lesson to his students, “When I look at you, I know that everyone one of you fellas that played for Joliet Catholic High School were gentlemen then and you are gentlemen now.” Once again, everyone there knew what it meant to be a Hilltopper.
Change, Challenges and Expectations
The early 1980s success of the Hilltoppers occurred as the 1980s recession hit the Joliet area particularly hard. Industry and retail establishments were closing. Business was leaving the area and unemployment rates in the area were 25 percent. In 1982, growth was at a standstill as the City of Joliet issued only sixteen (16) building permits for single-family houses. During these very difficult years, the success attained and the never quit effort put forth by the Hilltoppers inspired many in the area. Gillespie’s accomplishments during this period were remarkable and the accomplishments of his successors were astonishing.
JCHS alum Jim Boyter was named as successor to Gillespie. Though these were very big shoes to fill, Boyter was familiar with the program and players as he was on the Hilltopper staff when Gillespie’s move to the College of St. Francis was announced. Boyter brought an undying love for the game and a high level of enthusiasm.
Boyter faced a challenging initial campaign as the depth was sparse and many untested Juniors took the field to start 1986. The opening game was a baptism by fire for the first-time Head Coach and an inexperienced squad as the season opened with a heartbreaking loss to St. Laurence. The Vikings scored 12 points in the 4th Quarter to log a 24-18 victory. Old rival Marian Catholic defeated the Hilltoppers in week # 2. Boyter’s team regained its composure and rebounded to win six of seven ESCC games losing only to St. Patrick. It was the Hilltoppers’ first ever ESCC loss. The teams shared the ESCC crown as both finished with 6-1 conference records. After a playoff victory, Marian Catholic was back for a second round playoff game and took another game from the Hilltoppers on their way to the 5A Semi-Finals. The season record was 7-4; however the Junior class and the new coaching staff gained a great deal of experience. 1986 was also the year that the IHSA expanded the number of playoff qualifiers from 16 to 32 teams per class and added another playoff round.
In 1987, the season opened with the Hilltoppers defeating St. Laurence. After a weird series of events late in the game, Marian Catholic eked out a 15-14 victory. A close win over Carmel and a 13-6 loss to St. Patrick had the Hilltoppers at 2-2 for the second straight year. The early season struggles paid off as the team jelled and ran off five straight conference victories finishing the conference at 6-1. They again shared the ESCC championship with St. Patrick.
With their mettle tested early in the year, the Hilltoppers then blew through the 5A playoffs outscoring their first three opponents 91-21. They then faced a very strong Peoria Richwoods team for the 5A Championship. Richwoods had bounced the Hilltoppers from the playoffs in 1984. After giving up 13 points in the 1st Quarter, the Hilltoppers rallied to score 7 points in the 3rd Quarter and scored on a TD pass to tie the game with 2 minutes remaining. The successful PAT and defensive stand gave the Hilltoppers a 14-13 victory and the championship with a season record of 12-2. Richwoods was a state power having compiled a 70-6 record from 1983-1989. Richwoods won the 5A Championships in both 1985 and 1988.
The Hilltoppers followed up the 1987 5A Championship season with a tough 1988. Just as in the previous two seasons, non-conference foe Marian Catholic and ESCC member St. Patrick handed the Hilltoppers regular season defeats. In week # 8 Marist defeated the Hilltoppers for the first time ever. Strangely the ESCC season ended with four (4) teams tied for the conference title with 5-2 conference marks. The Hilltoppers won their 1st Round playoff game before losing to a Wheaton Central/South team that was on the rise. The season ended at 7-4. Under Boyter’s three-year leadership the Hilltoppers posted a 26-10 record and won a Class 5A State Championship.
The Stone Age
Bob Stone, who had first come to Joliet Catholic from Wilmington High school in the early 1980s as a lower level coach under Gillespie, had been serving as the Varsity Offensive Line coach when Boyter resigned as Head Coach after the 1988 season. Stone was named as his replacement in what would be the Hilltoppers’ last season as Joliet Catholic High School. The economic realities of the 1980s recession and its impact on the Joliet area had taken its toll and Joliet Catholic High School was not immune from its devastation. In 1989 the enrollment had dipped to the low 500s and the survival of the 71 year-old institution was in question.
Regardless, the Stone inspired Hilltoppers took the field in 1989 with a strong desire to carry on the traditions they had grown to embrace. An opening win over St. Laurence and a spirited win over Marian Catholic (after four consecutive losses to the Spartans) had the Hilltoppers at 2-0 for the first time since 1984. The Hilltoppers only blemish on the ESCC season was a 7-6 loss in Niles to a strong Notre Dame team (that year’s 5A Runner Up to Mt. Carmel). The ESCC season ended with the Hilltoppers alone atop the conference with a 6-1 conference record. The Hilltoppers defeated Oswego in the Wednesday afternoon 1st Round of the playoff game.
For Saturday afternoon’s opponent, the Hilltoppers then faced neighboring Providence for the first time in history. Providence was coached by JCHS graduate Matt Senffner, who had led the Celtics to a 4A Title in 1987 and to the 3rd round of the 1988 4A Playoffs, where they lost to eventual State Champion Richards. Both teams were 9-1 and the Hilltoppers outlasted the Celtics 15-0 in New Lenox. Next up was a Saturday evening home game against the defending State Champion Richards. The Bulldogs proved too strong as the Hilltoppers went down to defeat 34-12. Richards went on to win the 4A Championship and was the # 12 team in the final USA Today national poll. Stone’s first year was an impressive 10-2 season.
In early 1990 it was announced that Joliet Catholic High School would be merging with St. Francis Academy. Economics and the community’s desire to maintain a Catholic High School in the City of Joliet made this merger of institutions the only viable option. For decades the two schools served as sister schools. Families sent the daughters to SFA and their sons to JCHS. The two school communities were nearly one everywhere except the classroom and even there certain classes were co-educational. The two institutions had been partners in community events and fundraising campaigns for years. Many well-intentioned opinions, both internal and external to the existing school communities were shared about how the make-up, mission and identity of the “new school” should be crafted. When the conclusion was drawn to “start a new” and establish new traditions, many in both communities were perplexed. Upon announcement that the new school colors would be Blue and Silver and the nickname of “Royals” would be adopted the Hilltoppers spoke up. The students of JCHS staged as sit-in in protest which resulted in further consideration, from which came a new decision to keep the former school nicknames, Hilltoppers for the boys and Angels for the girls and to combine existing school colors.
Stone’s team entered the 1990 season representing a new school community, with the school in a new location and a great deal of change and misunderstanding in the air. Stone and his staff did an outstanding job of keeping the team focused and ran through the regular season undefeated, with the 16-6 victory over old rival and newly added to the ESCC Marian Catholic as the regular season’s closest game. The Hilltoppers avenged the previous season’s loss to Notre Dame posting a 49-21 victory and captured another ESCC Championship.
The playoffs opened with unusual anticipation. The Hilltoppers 1st Round foe was Morris. Morris coach Dan Darlington had developed a strong program leading the Redskins to two State Championships and two Runner Up finishes, the most recent of which happened the season before in an overtime loss to powerful Richards. Morris had earned respect and entered the game at Joliet Memorial Stadium as the top rated team in every poll in Illinois and the # 4 ranked team in the USA Today national poll. With so many changes in the past six months, the Hilltopper team was searching for answers. Stone’s pre-game decision to forego warm ups and simply have his team pace their own sideline for their warm ups sent a message to his team and the Hilltopper faithful that he knew his team was ready to defend what it considered its honor. The Hilltoppers took the field and pounded the ball up and down the field accumulating 22 first downs in a 36-10 victory. The school may have moved, but old-time Hilltopper Football had not gone away.
The Hilltoppers moved through the playoffs and into the 4A Championship game. Behind the Hilltoppers, championship opponent Geneseo had established the next most successful program in the history of the IHSA Playoffs. Before leaving to become the Head Coach at Augustana College, Bob Reade logged a 147-19-4 record in seventeen (17) years at Geneseo. Reade’s squads won three-straight 3A Championships in 1976, 1977 and 1978. In sixteen (16) years at Augustana, Reade posted a 146-21-1 record and his teams won four straight NCAA Division III National Titles from 1983 through 1986. Reade’s successors at Geneseo maintained the program’s winning tradition finishing as 4A Runner Up in 1981 and 4A Champion in 1982. Geneseo entered the game with a 33-11 playoff record and a very proud tradition.
The score sea-sawed throughout the game. Geneseo scored late in the game to cut the Hilltopper lead to 21-20. The Geneseo program and coach Vic Boblett earned the everlasting respect of the Hilltopper community when they elected to go for the win via a two-point conversion. The Hilltopper Defense answered with a shirt-grabbing tackle that took the Maple Leaf ball carrier to the ground a foot short of the goal line. The Hilltoppers held on and captured their record seventh State Title and the program’s ninth undefeated season.
The Mt. Carmel Rivalry is Renewed
The Hilltoppers opened the 1991 season against old rival Mt. Carmel, playing the Caravan for the first time in eight (8) years. This Gately Stadium game was the first of thirteen (13) games between the two schools over the next eleven years. Mt. Carmel had won three straight State Championships (two in 5A and one in 6A) and had finished the 1990 season ranked # 7 in the final USA Today national poll. With just over 8 minutes remaining, the Hilltoppers rallied from a 24-6 deficit to score 18 unanswered points and force overtime. Both teams scored 7 points in the first overtime forcing a second overtime. The Hilltopper Defense held and the Offense punched in a 7 yard run for the victory. Mt. Carmel rebounded and won the 1991 5A Championship.
The big win over Mt. Carmel was followed by a tight 28-23 victory over Marian Catholic. The Hilltoppers then ran the table on the ESCC holding five conference opponents to just one score each. They also shut out Notre Dame and Holy Cross to finish the regular season 9-0. After two playoff wins, the Hilltoppers managed to score a 14-13 win over Bradley-Bourbonnais. They then faced Wheaton Central/South in the Class 5A Semi-Finals. Wheaton had finished the previous year as 5A Runner up to Mt. Carmel. Flooding forced the game to be moved from Wheaton’s Red Grange Field to the field at Wheaton College. The Tigers shut down the Hilltopper ground game, handing the Hilltoppers a season ending 28-6 loss, ending a 26 game winning streak.
The 1992 season opened with four-time defending State Champion Mt. Carmel posting a 27-6 victory over the Hilltoppers in Joliet. The inexperienced Hilltopper team matured as the season progressed as a strong Defense carried the team while the Offense gained experience and confidence with each passing week. The Hilltoppers ended the regular season 8-1, posting four (4) shut outs along the way. After two more shut outs in the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Hilltoppers stopped a very talented Bloomington team in the 3rd Round.
The football gods set up a rematch with Mt. Carmel in the Semi-Final game in Joliet. The Memorial Stadium crowd of 10,000 saw the Hilltoppers’ stiff Defense bottle up the explosive Mt. Carmel Offense. The Caravan was held to 3 points through the first three (3) Quarters. The Hilltoppers scored a TD on a long run early in the 3rd Quarter and took a 7-3 lead. After continuing to get big 3rd Down stops against the Caravan, the Hilltoppers mounted a drive in the 4th Quarter and ran in an 8 yard TD with just under 3 minutes remaining. With the score 13-3, the Mt. Carmel Offense struck quickly with a TD and two-point conversion to cut the lead to 13-11. The Hilltoppers were able to cleanly field the ensuing kickoff and run out the clock for the victory. That day the Hilltopper Offense ran the ball on 46 of 49 plays. This win prevented Mt. Carmel and coach Frank Lenti from becoming the first team in state history to win five (5) straight state titles. The two Carmelite schools were then tied with each school having won four in a row.
In what was voted to be the most exciting Championship game of the first 25 years of the Playoffs, the Hilltoppers took on Wheaton South. This match up pitted two of the best ground games in the state and after spotting Wheaton 14 1st Quarter points, the Hilltoppers posted 13 points in the 2nd Quarter while holding the Tigers to a 2nd Quarter Field Goal for a 17-13 Wheaton lead at the Half. In the 2nd Half the game sea-sawed and the Hilltoppers took the lead 27-24 after a long TD run and the PAT. Wheaton tied the game with a late 4th Quarter Field Goal to force overtime. Both teams traded Touchdowns and PATs in the first overtime forcing a second overtime. In the second overtime Wheaton stopped the Hilltoppers and scored on a TD run to win this thriller 40-34. This was the first time in eight Championship appearances that Hilltoppers did not win. The team showed as much heart as any championship team, having given it their all. No one could ask for more. Wheaton South was the # 8 team in the final USA Today national poll.
In 1993 a teachers’ strike hit the Chicago Public Schools and as a result the City’s High School Football facilities were closed. This included Gately Stadium, which Mt. Carmel rented for Caravan home games. Mt. Carmel rented Joliet Memorial Stadium for the week # 1 game.
Mt. Carmel played host, wore brown jerseys and used the West sideline and bleachers. The Hilltoppers were dressed in their white uniforms and used the visitors’ sideline and bleachers on the East side of the field. The Caravan jumped out to 17-7 Halftime lead. In the 3rd Quarter the Hilltoppers scored on a long TD and cut the lead to 17-13, but missed the PAT. Mt. Carmel scored early in the 4th Quarter and converted the PAT to take what looked to be a commanding 24-13 lead. The Hilltoppers scored on a long pass play with under 4 minutes left to cut the lead to 24-19. A two-point conversion attempt failed. The Hilltopper Defense held the Caravan on the next series. Taking possession deep in their own territory with under a minute remaining, the Hilltoppers completed a number passes and then scored on 32-yard pass with just 21 seconds remaining. A successful two-point conversion made the game 27-24. The Hilltopper Defense held to seal the dramatic victory.
The next week defending Class 6A Champion Naperville North, led by Head Coach and JCHS grad Larry McKeon came to Joliet. McKeon was a star member of the mid-1960s Hilltopper powerhouse that went 27-1 over three years. After playing at the University of Illinois, McKeon returned to JCHS as teacher and coach. Initially coaching on the lower levels under Gillespie, he moved to a Varsity Assistant during the 1975, 1976 and 1977 State Championship years. McKeon left JCHS in 1978 to become Head Coach at Plainfield High School where he took the Wildcats to the 1981 IHSA Playoffs. A year later, he left Plainfield to become the Head Coach and program architect at Naperville North.
Now in week # 2, McKeon’s team took away any sense of momentum the Hilltoppers may have carried with them from the emotional opening win over Mt. Carmel early in the game. By utilizing their team speed, precise execution and balanced attack Naperville North built a 28-0 Halftime lead. The game ended 34-8.
The Hilltoppers of 1993 lost 28-21 in week # 3 to the Marian Catholic. Marian went undefeated, won the Class 4A State Championship and was the # 13 team in the final USA Today national poll. The Hilltoppers suffered one more regular season loss, falling at Marist 23-18. For the first time since joining the ESCC in 1982, the Hilltoppers did not finish conference play as Champions or Co-Champions.
The playoff bracket had the Hilltoppers hosting old Illini-8 foe Bolingbrook in the 1st Round. The Hilltoppers nearly outlasted a remarkably quick Raiders team, but a last second Field Goal attempt sailed wide of the Memorial Stadium upright by a mere 2 inches. This was the first Bolingbrook victory over the Hilltoppers in nine games. The Raiders finished 5A Runner Up to Belvedere. The 6-4 record yielded the fewest number of victories since the Hilltoppers’ 5-4 1980 campaign.
The 1994 season started as exciting as the 1993 season as the Hilltoppers hosted Mt. Carmel. The game was nearly even statistically. The Caravan appeared to have a victory secured with a 19-7 lead late in the game. The Hilltoppers scored and kicked the PAT with 53 seconds remaining to cut the lead to 19-14. The ensuing kickoff pinned the Caravan within their own 3-yard line. Fearful that “taking a knee” could result in a Safety, Mt. Carmel elected to run the ball to kill the clock. The determined Hilltopper Defenders hit hard, stripped the ball and recovered the fumble on the 1-yard line. On the next play the Hilltoppers punched in a one yard TD run to take the lead 20-19 with 14 seconds left and win this craziest of games in the storied rivalry.
A trip to Naperville in week # 2 was reminiscent of the previous year with the host Huskies posting a 35-7 victory. McKeon’s squad went on to finish the season as 6A Runner Up with a 12-2 record. The Hilltoppers recovered and went 6-1 in conference play, losing to Marian Catholic for the second year in a row. After handling Lake Zurich in the 1st Round of the playoffs, the Hilltoppers fell to Bishop McNamara in Kankakee. It was the first meeting of the schools since 1937 when Bishop McNamara was named Kankakee St. Patrick.
1995 opened with the Hilltoppers first trip Gately Stadium since the 1991 overtime thriller. The Hilltoppers held Mt. Carmel to under 100 yards rushing and moved the ball on the ground between the 20s. It was not enough as the Caravan threw effectively for over 200 yards in 11 of 15 passing and posted a 29-7 win. McKeon’s Naperville North team posted a 35-14 win in week # 2 and the Hilltoppers entered conference play at 0-2.
The Hilltopper Defense tightened up. The team ran through the conference undefeated. The 16 points scored by St. Viator marked the only conference opponent to score more than once. The ESCC season was not without excitement and no game more so than the come from behind victory over Marian Catholic in Joliet. The Spartans led 7-0 with 4 minutes left and the Hilltoppers scored with a 15-yard TD run. The two-point conversion won the game 8-7. The playoffs opened with a 7-6 win at home over the same Carmel team the Hilltoppers had defeated 14-6 on the same field three weeks before. The season ended a week later in Oak Lawn when an undefeated Richards team beat the Hilltoppers 16-7.
The school was working to chart its course for the future through very difficult times. Enrollment had declined each year since the merger and was approaching the 600 student number. The explosion of growth had begun on Joliet’s Westside and in Plainfield and the future looked promising. During the 1990s, Fenwick, Loyola Academy and St. Viator also went co-ed.
The schools of the ESCC and the Chicago Catholic League decided to form a Metropolitan Area Super Conference named the Chicago Metro Catholic Conference commonly referred to as the CMC. The plan was to group the twenty-four (24) member schools into four (4) mini-conferences given names of colors — CMC Blue, CMC White, CMC Green and CMC Red — of six (6) teams each. Each team would play their five (5) other mini-conference teams as “conference” games and three (3) “crossover games” against teams from the other mini-conferences. The teams were grouped by a combination of proximity, traditional rivalries and strength of program. The model called for reorganization every two years. The two most successful teams of each mini-conference would move up to the next highest division while the weakest performing members of each mini-conference would be moved down a division.
For the 1996 The Hilltoppers and fellow ESCC St. Patrick were put into the Metro White Division along with Providence, DeLaSalle, Bishop McNamara, Fenwick and St. Laurence. Their crossover games were against Benet, St. Francis deSales and Notre Dame. This commitment left the teams with only one non-conference game, in week # 1. The Hilltoppers and Mt. Carmel agreed to keep each other and their rivalry alive for the next two years. The CMC commitment required the Hilltoppers to drop their week # 2 Naperville North game.
The season opened with 22-7 loss to Mt. Carmel in a game dominated by the Caravan. Wins over Benet and DeLaSalle set the stage for the second ever meeting between the Hilltoppers and neighboring Providence. Providence had won two straight State Titles (5A in 1994 and 4A in 1995) and had finished the 1995 season the # 9 team in the final USA Today national poll. The Celtics were owners of a 32 game winning streak.
In front of 10,000 spectators at Joliet Memorial Stadium, the Celtics jumped out to a quick 21-0 lead and coasted to a 35-20 victory. A listless victory over St. Francis deSales was followed by a disappointing 6-0 loss to St. Patrick in Chicago. This marked the first time the Hilltoppers had been shutout since a 14-0 loss to Marian Catholic in 1986. It was only the fourth time the Hilltoppers had been shut out since 1966. The team was 3-3 and many wondered where this season would wind up.
With a belief in themselves being nearly all that was left, the Hilltoppers went back to the program’s Power-I roots. They then ran off three straight conference games scoring 37, 36 and 46 points. The Hilltoppers entered the playoffs at 6-3 and marched through Chicago Harper 42-0, East St. Louis 46-8, St. Rita 27-17 and Rockton 41-20 in the Semi-Finals to set up a rematch versus Mt. Carmel in 5A State Championship game.
The game was 7-6 Mt. Carmel at Halftime and though the yardage statistics ended near even, Mt. Carmel scored 7 points in the 3rd Quarter and put up a 4th Quarter Field Goal to win the State Title 17-6. It was a remarkable run for a team many had given up for dead after week # 6. Mt. Carmel was the # 6 team and Providence the # 11 team in the final USA Today national poll.
Bob Stone resigned as Hilltopper coach and Athletic Director in early 1997 after accepting the dual role of Athletic Director and Head Football Coach roles at West Chicago High School. Stone left with a record of 80-19 over eight seasons for a .808 winning percentage. It is often said that a team takes on the personality of its coach. That was true during Stone’s tenure as his even keel personality was reflected in the calm, determined approach with which his teams carried themselves. Like Stone, his teams did not lose their composure in tight, pressure packed games. Twenty-one (21) of Stone’s ninety-nine (99) games as Head Coach were decided by fewer than one score and in those games Stone’s Hilltopper squads were an amazing 15-6.
Coach Sharp Returns Home
In early 1997 Joliet Catholic Academy hired former coach Gordie Gillespie as a consultant to assist the Administration in developing a comprehensive model to revamp both the girls and boys Athletic Departments. The horizon showed promise as the number of people under 18 years old living in Joliet had increased by over 10,000 children between 1990 and 2000. According to Census Bureau figures, it grew from 21,153 to 31,287.
There was one man who many in the Joliet Catholic Academy community viewed as the ideal leader to do the job. This man was a JCHS ’74 graduate. After college he had returned to JCHS as a teacher and followed Gillespie to the College of St. Francis. He served as Gillespie’s Offensive Coordinator until accepting the Head Coaching position at Minooka High School in 1993. In four short years at Minooka, he had revived the program. He took the Indians to the playoffs in his final three seasons. His 1996 squad made it to the 4A Semi-Finals where they lost to undefeated and eventual State Champion Providence.
When Joliet Catholic Academy and his mentor Gillespie asked Dan Sharp to return home to serve as Head Football Coach and Athletic Director, Sharp gave the offer considerable thought. His conclusion was to accept the position and serve where he believed he was supposed to be.
Sharp quickly assessed the program and made a commitment to develop the program from the lower levels up through the Varsity. Low enrollment numbers in the school led to smaller numbers of players. The 1996 Freshmen roster had just 28 players. Like Dwyer in 1950, Sharp installed the same offensive and defensive schemes on all levels. Sharp also evaluated his younger athletes and moved several into positions that would make the most productive use of their talent and skills. As the years passed and these players progressed to the Varsity, several received scholarships to major programs across the nation. Sharp’s commitment to detail, learned at Gillespie’s side, was channeled into shoring up the lower levels and in so doing, dramatically changed the course of life for several boys. These players would be instrumental in repositioning the Hilltoppers as a respected statewide power and in leading the program to become considered one of the most prominent in the nation.
Sharp’s initial 1997 squad had a rough start. After a 45-0 loss to Mt. Carmel in week # 1 the team lost three of their next four. At 1-3, Sharp kept his small roster team focused. They bounced back to win four of their next five, losing only to Fenwick by a 24-15 score. With a 5-4 mark the Hilltoppers were invited to participate in the Prep Bowl playoffs. The Hilltoppers lost a tight 17-14 game to St. Rita and ended the season at 5-5.
Sharp’s second squad (1998) had an unusual amount of sophomores playing on the Varsity level. Sharp employed Gillespie’s old unspoken but widely known rule: At the Varsity level the best players play. His squad opened with a strong first half against Mt. Carmel and held a 10-7 Halftime lead. As the game wore on, the Caravan pulled away and scored two unanswered TDs to win 21-10. This performance instilled a belief in the young team that they could compete with anyone. Mt. Carmel went on to an undefeated season and captured the 5A State Championship, earning the Caravan their 7th State Title, tying the Hilltoppers for most State Championships.
The Hilltoppers rolled off two wins and then lost a tight 12-6 game to a McNamara team that went 13-1 and suffered its only loss in the 4A State Championship game. The Hilltoppers finished the regular season at 7-2 and scored a 1st Round playoff victory over Tinley Park. Tinely Park was the first school the Hilltoppers ever played in postseason competition in the Wednesday afternoon opening game of the 1974 playoffs. Next was old rival and sometimes Hilltopper nemesis Marmion. The Hilltoppers had not played Marmion since 1969. To old timers this was 1968 all over again as the Hilltoppers lost 13-7. Sharp’s team accepted the invitation to enter the Prep Bowl playoffs and his team won two games to capture the Catholic Playoff Championship. They then played a game against the Public Champion Hubbard at Soldier Field. Though the team lost to Hubbard 28-16 in the Prep Bowl Championship, the postseason experience helped the young Hilltoppers experience a type of playoff run.
An Amazing Run
When the 1999 Hilltoppers took the field for pre-season practice, Sharp believed he may have developed something special. An old familiar face was around in the 1999 season as Gillespie had agreed to return and serve as Sharp’s Offensive Coordinator. The Hilltoppers opened the season with a stunning and inspired 10-7 victory over defending 5A Champion Mt. Carmel at Gately Stadium. The hard-hitting Hilltoppers held the Caravan to just 5 first downs and 105 total yards. After two convincing wins, the Hilltoppers defeated 1998 4A Runner Up McNamara 25-14. The Hilltoppers rolled through the remaining regular season games. The first two rounds of the playoffs saw big Hilltopper victories.
Morris was next on the schedule. The Saturday afternoon game at Joliet Memorial Stadium was witnessed by 10,000 spectators who saw the Hilltoppers hang on to win 16-14. A 28-14 Semi-Final home victory over Geneseo followed. In the Championship game, the Hilltoppers delivered a convincing, dominating 48-13 Championship victory over Metamora. A few moments after the Hilltoppers accepted the 4A Championship trophy, Mt. Carmel walked onto the U of I field and won the 5A Championship. The week # 1 loss to Hilltoppers was their only blemish. The Hilltoppers were ranked # 10 in the final USA Today national poll. The season also marked the Hilltoppers tenth undefeated season.
After a reshuffling of the CMC, the Hilltoppers were scheduled to play Mt. Carmel in week # 2 of the 2000 season as a crossover game. This left an open date for week # 1. Despite months of searching and hundreds of calls to teams with week # 1 openings, they were unable to get a game. The Hilltoppers were finally able to schedule an away game against Lawrenceville, IN from suburban Indianapolis. The Hilltoppers had not played in Indiana since their days as an Independent in the 1950s.
After a convincing 47-21 win on the road, the Hilltoppers returned home to host Mt. Carmel in week # 2. The Caravan had eyes on avenging their previous season’s opening game loss. The Hilltoppers had other plans and jumped to a 22-8 Halftime lead. In the 3rd Quarter the Caravan cut the lead to 22-20. With less than 5 minutes remaining in the game, the Hilltoppers closed out the scoring on an 18-yard TD pass. The Hilltoppers then defeated St. Patrick, Marian Catholic, McNamara, Notre Dame, Benet, Marist and Carmel to close out the regular season undefeated.
After handily defeating Normal Community West and Taylorville, the Hilltoppers hosted a very skilled Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin. Though the Hilltoppers posted a 52-36 win, Springfield’s explosive Offense kept the outcome in doubt until the Hilltoppers scored the final TD of the game with just under 3 minutes remaining. A trip to Pontiac on a blistery cold November day had all the makings of an upset. Old timers reflected back to Bartonville-Limestone in 1983 where the entire town was sky high and their team played a very focused game to defeat the Hilltoppers. Upon driving into Pontiac one noticed that every business and every home was decorated to support their boys. This was obviously not being viewed as just another football game by the town. The Hilltoppers took everything thrown at them. Completing key passes and break long runs at critical times to score 14 points in the 4th Quarter allowed the Hilltoppers to escape with a 28-20 victory.
A rematch with Metamora in the 4A Championship saw the Hilltoppers contain a dangerous and talented team pulling away in the 4th Quarter to post 27-14 win and claim the Hilltoppers record setting ninth State Title. It was also the program’s eleventh undefeated season. The Hilltoppers were ranked # 11th in the final USA Today national poll.
The Hilltoppers entered the 2001 season as Illinois’ top ranked team and with a USA Today Top 10 Preseason national ranking. Just as the year before, the Hilltoppers were unable to schedule a non-conference in-state opponent for their season opener. After months of phone calls around the country and near deals, the Hilltoppers scheduled fellow CMC member DeLaSalle who had also been unable to schedule a non-conference opponent. The Hilltoppers opened the season on a warm Saturday afternoon in the shadows of Comiskey Park and the elevated tracks on Chicago’s Southside, and scored a convincing 35-0 victory over the Meteors.
Mt. Carmel was the week # 2 opponent at an over sold, sold out Gately Stadium. Because of CMC readjusting scheduled for year’s end, this would be the last game between the Carmelite schools for the foreseeable future. Many spectators who had tickets were turned away at the gate that day as the stadium was filled to capacity 20 minutes before kickoff. The Caravan jumped out to an early lead and had bottled up the Hilltopper offense. The Caravan’s dominance continued and they built 28-0 lead, shocking all in the crowd. After the “Overrated” chants started from the home bleachers, the Hilltoppers scored 21 unanswered points within a 6 minute span at the end of the 3rd and beginning of the 4th Quarter to cut the lead to 28-21. Half of the crowd became concerned that a sleeping giant had awakened while the other half hoped it had. At this point genuine cheering returned from both sides and the Caravan scored on a TD run to close out the scoring and post a 35-21 win and snap the Hilltoppers’ 29 game winning streak. As disappointing as the loss was, the monkey was now off the back.
The Hilltoppers recovered and ran the table for the remaining eight (8) games but not without escaping a Carmel scare in a 28-25 home victory. The Hilltoppers won their first two playoff games by a combined score of 108-7. Then came Riverside-Brookfield.
In what has gone down as one of the most memorable games in the history of Illinois High School Football, the Hilltoppers headed up to “The Zoo” to play against coach Otto Zeeman’s Bulldogs. Over the years, Zeeman had developed and perfected a 5-wide Offense in which all eligible receivers were split and the quarterback was the lone man in the backfield aligned in a shotgun formation. The year before, Zeeman had said that he had designed this Offense for the specific purpose of defeating Joliet Catholic. His rationale was that his team would always have difficulty competing against the huge linemen produced by Joliet Catholic. His belief was if he could make the game a match of skill position players, his team would have a fighting chance. He was almost right, but his team fell one yard short.
The Hilltoppers ran up and down the field at will, and strangely enough Zeeman’s passing attack did the same. The Hilltoppers ran 85 rushing plays for 538 yards and attempted just one pass. R-B attempted 50 passes, completed 24 for 575 yards and had no passes intercepted. R-B’s nine rushing attempts yielded 23 yards and were mostly a result of flushing the quarterback with a few attempted quarterback draws. It was as if the 9,000 people who had jammed into the Suburban High School Football Stadium were witnessing two separate events occurring on the same field: In one direction moved an endless parade of concrete trucks and in the other direction a gymnastics display suited for a circus big top and yet some how the two were interrelated. The game ended with the Hilltoppers batting down a 1-yard pass at the goal line as time expired for a 56-50 win.
The win over R-B was followed by a Semi-Final home victory in front of 8,500 people over an inspired Rochelle team. The Hilltoppers jumped out to a 16-0 lead in the 1st Quarter and never looked back winning 44-8.
A showdown with Morris for the 4A State Title game awaited. After witnessing the success R-B had versus the Hilltoppers, not being able to establish a consistent ground game in the 1st Quarter and finally having a strong wind at their back, Morris surprised the U of I crowd and jumped into the Lonesome Polecat formation early in the 2nd Quarter. The Hilltoppers had last faced this formation when defeating Danville in the 1976 Title Game. The move allowed Morris to leverage the element of surprise as the Hilltoppers had not prepared to defend this type of offense. The Hilltoppers responded to the challenge by playing bend-don’t-break defense. Though Morris ran twice as many offensive plays, the Hilltoppers prevailed and won the 5A Championship 27-20. 2001 was also the year that the IHSA expanded the playoffs to eight classes (8A-1A). USA Today ranked the 13-1 Hilltoppers # 15 nationally in their final poll. This was the Hilltoppers’ third straight Top 25 finish in the paper’s national poll.
2002 opened with great promise and great challenge. What had become an off-season ritual of searching the Midwest for a non-conference opponent took a particularly interesting twist. A few teams pulled out of the CMC and Weber High School closed. The impact on the Hilltoppers was that they found themselves with a week # 5 opening. By week # 5 most teams were battling within their conferences and traveling to an out of state game had the IHSA 600 mile limit which restricted possibilities. Rockhurst, the all boys Catholic school of 1,400 in Kansas City was used to traveling throughout the country to find competition. They had an opening in week # 5 and agreed to play the Hilltoppers in Joliet.
The Hilltoppers opened 2002 by defeating Fenwick, Loyola and St. Viator. Next up was a home contest against highly ranked and powerful Providence. The hype that surrounded the three previous meetings between the two neighboring schools was there as was the added excitement of the game being an ESPN national telecast. As 10,000+ watched, the Celtics prevail in a hard-hitting tight battle 10-2. The following week Rockhurst took the Memorial Stadium field in no nonsense uniforms with a hard-nosed fundamentally sound approach to the game. After a good battle for first three Quarters, Rockhurst pulled away in the 4th Quarter to post a 28-9 victory.
The Hilltoppers moved ahead from their 3-2 mark and rolled through their remaining regular season games and 1st Round Playoff game. The 2nd Round opponent was R-B and the Hilltopper Defense stepped up big containing the explosive Zeeman Bulldogs. Offensively the Hilltoppers had and unusual number of drive killing fumbles and allowed R-B to hang around. When time ran out the Hilltoppers had hung on to score 10-7 victory. Next was a rematch with Providence and the Celtics beat the Hilltoppers in every aspect of the game while the Hilltoppers looked stuck in the mud. Providence won 41-0. Hilltoppers ended the season 9-3. The USA Today had the only teams that beat the Hilltoppers ranked in their national Top 25 with Rockhurst # 6 and Providence # 16.
The 2002 season was also the end of the CMC experiment. The nearly constant changes resulted in scheduling games nearly impossible. The Hilltoppers would return to the ESCC which would now have ten (10) member schools and conference play would consist of a nine (9) game schedule with no non-conference games. The leadership of the 2003 team used the lessons learned in the 2002 season motivation to return to the top.
Reclaiming Pride and Glory
The success R-B had in moving the ball during their 56-50 loss to the Hilltoppers in 2001 inspired several ESCC coaches. The Hilltoppers were now facing several spread offenses throughout the course of the season. Benet and Notre Dame used this approach to throw two scares at the Hilltoppers. The Hilltoppers needed a long screen pass late in the game to score and post a 9-6 win over Benet and defeated Notre Dame in a close battle, 28-20. The Hilltoppers went 8-0 in conference play heading into the week # 9 conference showdown in Mundelein against an undefeated and explosive Carmel squad. The Hilltoppers entered the showdown using a converted Wingback as their third-string Quarterback and gave Carmel a fight until the Corsairs pulled away in the 2nd Half to post a 41-14 win and claim the ESCC Title.
The playoffs welcomed back the Hilltoppers first string Quarterback who returned from a week # 3 broken leg. They opened the playoffs outscoring their first two opponents 109-14. On tap for the 3rd Round was Morris and 10,000 people saw the Hilltoppers defeat the Redskins and their air assault 14-10. Hilltopper Nation went down the Illinois River and descended upon the community of LaSalle-Peru to watch the Hilltoppers post a 56-7 Semi-Final victory.
The stage was set for a rematch of the 1975 4A Championship game. In 1975 the all boys Springfield Griffin High School Cyclones faced off against the all boys Joliet Catholic High School Hilltoppers. 2003 would have the Cyclones from co-ed Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin facing the Hilltoppers from co-ed Joliet Catholic Academy. The Hilltoppers shut down the Cyclones ground game early on and jumped to a 10-0 lead after the 1st Quarter. The Hilltoppers opened the lead to 17-0 midway through the 3rd Quarter at which point the Cyclone passing game clicked. The Hilltoppers scored again on a TD pass before Springfield scored twice to cut the lead to 24-21 with 2 ½ minutes left. The Cyclones attempted an onside kick that was successfully fielded by the Hilltoppers at mid-field. The Hilltoppers never gave up the ball, and became 5A State Champions winning their record setting 11th State Title. A few hours later, and in a convincing manner, Mundelein Carmel won the Class 6A Championship. The final USA Today national poll had Mundelein Carmel # 7 and the Hilltoppers # 8 in their Midwest Regional rankings.
Optimism surrounded the 2004 preseason. The Hilltoppers were ranked as a Top 5 team in the Tribune and Sun Times preseason polls. As the season unfolded, followers observed the fastest Hilltopper team ever fielded. This provided the platform for one of the most balanced running games and proficient passing attacks in the program’s history. Leadership and team unity underscored how special this team really was.
With the exception of Carmel and St. Patrick, ESCC opponents all but abandoned the run and became a pass-happy, spread offense conference. The Hilltopper Defense adjusted to post three regular season shutouts. The only times teams scored more than twice all year were when Carmel posted 21 and St. Viator 16 points. The regular season included a 44-14 victory over a highly touted St. Patrick in week # 3 and a down-to-the-wire 21-14 squeaker over old foe Marian Catholic, in which the Spartans appeared to guess correctly at every critical juncture. The regular season ended with the Hilltoppers avenging the previous season’s loss to Carmel with a 55-21 victory in Joliet.
The playoffs brought lopsided victories over Crane of the Chicago Public League and RB. The RB air-machine fell apart Joliet as the Hilltoppers scored TDs on five of their first eight plays. A strong South to North wind in their face resulted in RB continually stopping the clock with incomplete passes and the Bulldogs digging themselves a 42-0 1st Quarter hole. The Halftime score was 56-0 as the Hilltoppers scored TDs on every 1st Half possession. The second team carried the 2nd Half and the game ended 69-6. A rebounding Fenwick program brought a hard-hitting Catholic League style of game to Joliet for the Round # 3 match up. The Hilltoppers pulled away in the 2nd Half and won 35-0. A Semi-Final road trip to Jacksonville was next. The Crimson had knocked out nationally ranked Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin the previous week. The Hilltoppers overcame the Crimson’s initial punch and posted a 42-13 victory while earning respect among some Central Illinois fans for their sportsmen like demeanor.
Since the 1990 meeting, the Hilltoppers versus Morris had developed into one of the most intense rivalries in the State. Sentiment was growing among the Public school officials around Illinois that the Private (Catholic) schools had an unfair advantage. Their rationale was the championship success of the Hilltoppers and that of a few other Catholic school programs. It was apparent that after 2004, the IHSA would institute a handicapping formula aimed at Private (Catholic) schools. For Playoff Class placement (8A-1A), the IHSA would likely double the enrollment for Private (Catholic) schools. This “multiplier” ensured that this would be the last Hilltopper-Morris match up for years to come. A rumor that this might be legendary Morris coach Dan Darlington’s last game and the belief among the Morris faithful that this was the best Redskin team ever, added more drama to this 7th game between these rivals who had first played in 1923.
High wind, a 40-degree temperature and constant rain, made for challenging playing conditions in Champaign and set the stage for a defensive struggle. In the 1st Quarter the Hilltoppers lined up to go for it on a 4th and 3 on the Morris 46 yard line, and then quick-kicked, downing the ball at the Morris 2 yard line. This play paid dividends as during the ensuing series, the Hilltopper Defense recovered a Morris fumble in the end zone to take a quick 7-0 lead. As the Quarter wound down, the Hilltoppers added a 42-yard field goal to lead 10-0. After a scoreless 2nd Quarter, the 3rd Quarter saw the Redskins, with the wind at their back for 18 plays, held scoreless despite starting drives at the Hilltopper 20 and 39 yard lines. With 9:13 left in the game, the Hilltoppers took possession at their own 11 yard line. With the game on the line, the team in plain brown jerseys, solid white pants and brown helmets mounted an 11-play, 89-yard drive on the ground by executing power blocking plays, used by the program since the 1960s, to perfection. With 2:52 remaining the Hilltoppers crossed the goal line on an 11 yard TD run. Realizing the game was all but officially over, Morris milked the clock for three plays and punted on 4th down. The Hilltoppers then “took a knee” to run out the clock for a 17-0 victory and claim the program’s 12th State Championship. The Hilltopper Defense limited the high production Morris Offense to 119 total yards.
The Hilltoppers finished atop both the Tribune and Sun Times polls with a 14-0 record; the program’s twelfth undefeated season. The end of year USA Today national poll ranked the Hilltoppers # 14. The USA Today feat marked the program’s fourth Top 25 national finish in the last six (6) years and fifth overall Top 25 national finish.
Today and Tomorrow
Today Joliet Catholic Academy is the strongest the institution has been since its 1990 merger. The 2005 enrollment will surpass the 1,000 students. Academic performance and scholastic recognition are at the highest levels in the schools’ histories and community support has never been stronger. When the 2005-2006 school year begins, the $6.3 million physical expansion project will be completed and the new Student Activity Center with a new gymnasium, additional classrooms, a new Alumni Hall, a Heritage Corridor and a Band Room will be in use.
The Hilltoppers are alive and well. Their Football program is performing at the highest level in its storied history. It appears that future generations will also be given the gift of the opportunity to learn the game of football and through it, life long lessons of how to carry one’s self with dignity and humility in the most joyous and the most dire of circumstances. They will be given the opportunity to measure themselves against not only their opponents on the field, but against the legacy of the Hilltopper teams of the past. They will also have the opportunity to build on the storied past and to leave the program better than it was when they arrived.
To all present and future Hilltoppers: Be sure to leave the Light on.