The 5 most intriguing playoff matchups in Rockford-area football

Durand/Pecatonica's Bo Seaton is shown defending a pass intended for Lena-Winslow star Marey Roby on Oct. 8, 2021. Du/Pec in Class 3A and Le-Win in 1A should be involved in two of the five best local first-round IHSA football playoff games this week.
Matt Trowbridge
Rockford Register Star

The Illinois High School Association announced its football playoff brackets in eight classes Saturday night. Here are the five most intriguing first-round playoff games for Rockford-area teams:

Aurora Christian at Lena-Winslow

The road to the Class 1A state title goes through Lena-Winslow, which has won four state titles in the last 10 years and was ranked No. 1 during last year’s playoff-less COVID season.

And Le-Win’s road always seems to go through Aurora Christian. Le-Win (7-2) will play Aurora Christian (6-3) in an early-round game for the third straight playoff season.

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Le-Win won the first two games somewhat easily — but the Panthers tend to beat almost everyone easily. Aurora Christian — home of former NFL receiver Don Beebe and his brothers and their sons — runs a high-powered spread offense and plays far bigger schools during the regular season.

“You are never quite sure what you are going to get, but they have always been a tough opponent,” Le-Win coach Ric Arand said.

Le-Win’s pass rush overran Aurora Christian in the previous two meetings and the Panthers beat four high-powered passing teams in their last playoff run in 2019.

“The teams we have faced this year, we haven’t used it a whole lot; we usually play run-oriented teams,” Arand said. “Hopefully, we get to that point where we can use that and work on it a little more. We have kids real similar to what we have had in the past.

“We are usually more ready come playoff time, even though we don’t see that a whole lot in the regular season. Maybe the differentness is intriguing for the kids and fun for the coaches. We always have fared well against passing teams.”

Mendota at Durand/Pecatonica 

Du/Pec (8-1) is the champ of the toughest Class 1A conference in the state, with NUIC teams winning nine of the last 10 titles in the state’s smallest class. But because they are a co-op, Du/Pec jumps up two classes for the playoffs.

Can the Rivermen compete in 3A?

They did two years ago, winning their first playoff game before losing to state runner-up Byron in the second round. Now they get Mendota, which left Byron’s Big Northern Conference this year.

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“We are going to go against bigger schools, but I don’t know if that’s a concern, playing in the conference we do against quality football programs gives us a good test throughout the season,” Du/Pec coach Tyler Hoffman said.

Mendota (5-4) never was one of the top teams in the league in its years in the BNC. And Du/Pec has a far better running game this year to pair with three-year starting quarterback Hunter Hoffman, Tyler’s son.

“In years past, we relied on Hunter to have a good passing game to be competitive,” coach Hoffman said. “If teams stopped the pass, they knew they would be all right. They can’t say that this year.”

This senior class has revived football in a pair of towns where football had been in the doldrums for almost two decades.

“We have been coaching some of these kids from 2nd or 3rd grade,” Hunter Hoffman said. “It’s a special group that holds a special place in my heart.”

If Du/Pec wins, the Rivermen will probably meet private school power Elmurst IC Catholic (8-1) — which beat Byron in the 2017 semifinals — in the second round.

“The Catholic schools are always going to be a little better than their seeds,” Hoffman said. “We see high seeds come out of there and win state championships. But if we are lucky enough to get out of the first round, we will be ready to go.”

Chicago Hyde Park at Stillman Valley

Mike Lalor has won five state titles and finished second once in 24 years at Stillman Valley, but all those title appearances were in 2A or 3A. In 4A, he hasn’t gotten past the second round since reaching the semifinals in 2011.

“It’s definitely tougher,” Lalor said. “The biggest thing that jumps out is the depth of the field is much greater. You also see more of the Division-I athletes in 4A that can be tough to handle.”

If the Cardinals win this week, they will probably face Richmond-Burton, which hasn’t lost a game in three years. R-B used to rule the East Division when Stillman was top dog in the West in the days the Big Northern was split into division before the East teams left to form the Kishwaukee River Conference.

“It will be 10 years since we have seen each other,” Lalor said. “I hope we can get there.

“We have to play our own version of perfect games. We don’t have a lot of margin for error. We can’t overcome many mistakes. We have to play some near perfect football in order to advance.”

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Grayslake Central at Belvidere North 

Both teams in this Class 6A matchup are 7-2. Both finished third in their conference, Grayslake in the Northern Lake County and Belvidere North in the NIC-10. And both had some narrow escapes against lesser teams.

Grayslake Central escaped Mundelein (4-5), Grayslake North (3-6) and Fox Lake Grant (2-7) by a total of 13 points, winning 34-33, 28-25 and 35-26.

Belvidere North edged East (5-4), Auburn (3-6) and Freeport (3-6) by a total of 17 points, winning 14-12, 24-14 and 31-26.

But North also beat Boylan, came within a yard of beating undefeated Hononegah in a 14-9 loss and its worst beating was only 27-14 to Harlem. Grayslake, on the other hand, was thumped 49-14 by Wauconda and beat only one winning team, a 5-4 Lake Villa Lakes squad.

The question with North is whether the Blue Thunder will play up — or down — to their level of competition.

The numbers:Week 8 Illinois NIC-10, BNC and NUIC football stats: East, Auburn and Boylan athletes sit at No. 1

Plainfield East at Hononegah

The seeds make this Class 7A game seem easy. Hononegah knows better. Plainfield East was a No. 13 sub-sectional seed when baseball regionals began last spring but won the Class 4A state title, beating Hononegah in the state semifinals. And the last time an undefeated Hononegah football team faced a 5-4 team in the first-round of the playoffs, Hono needed to break up a late two-point conversion attempt in the final three minutes to edge Buffalo Grove 21-20 in 2018.

Three Hononegah football stars — Bryce Goodwine, Dylan Sayles and Drake Emanuel — were on the baseball team that lost to Plainfield East. Can they avenge that on the football field?

"Looking at them, they are going to be a mid- to upper-level team in our conference," Hononegah coach Brian Zimmerman said of Plainfield East. "We are going to have to play well.

"The playoffs are always an opportunity to see what the team is really made out of. Any time you get an opportunity to play a school outside of the conference — which is only in the playoffs for us — we are going to enioy that opportunity. Our defense is going to have to play as well as they have been playing or even take another step up."

Matt Trowbridge: mtrowbridge@rrstar.com; @matttrowbridge