SHG's road to football title No. 6 doesn't end. It only continues | opinion

Ryan Mahan
State Journal-Register

For 15 members of the Sacred Heart-Griffin football team, their high school gridiron careers are over with Friday’s 56-27 loss to Joliet Catholic in the Class 4A state championship game at Northern Illinois University. 

But for so many others — including many of the most-key contributors — there will be another shot. And it’s easy to imagine the Cyclones back in the title game in 2022.  

“I feel like this is a very important lesson we learned,” SHG junior quarterback Ty Lott said. “We won’t forget this and we’re trying to be back here next year.” 

Recap: Sacred Heart Griffin loses to Joliet Catholic in 4A title game

As sophomores, many of the SHG’s Class of 2023 players didn’t see much playing time. The Cyclones were loaded with talented seniors across the field, and SHG would’ve been a contender for a state title in Class 4A or 5A had there been a postseason.  

There was a smattering of then-juniors-turned-seniors on that team, but SHG’s No. 1 task after the six-game spring season ended was to figure out which players would fill which vacancies. Even the best-laid plans can go awry and a football roster is at the mercy of injuries for every team, so the plugging holes and filling spots didn’t end just because the season began.  

Sacred Heart-Griffin quarterback Ty Lott (16) scrambles to avoid a sack from Joliet Catholic's Dillan Johnson (76) in the first half of the IHSA Class 4A Football State Championship at Huskie Stadium in Dekalb, Ill., Friday, November 26, 2021. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

SHG (12-2) grew up following a 45-41 Week 3 loss to Rochester. The Cyclones turned that growth into a 49-42, come-from-behind win over Rochester in the Class 4A semifinals at Rochester to get to the state championship game.  

“I was kind of surprised (with how fast and how far SHG grew),” SHG junior J’veon Bardwell said. “In the beginning, I was a little nervous but then coming together with the teammates and all-state (level) linebackers next to me, we started to have fun.” 

SHG senior center Noah Gray expects the Cyclones at the 2022 state championship game at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.  

“I know they’re going to be back here next year, just from the fact that both my guys on my right — (right tackle Ashton Bacon and right guard John Jones) — weren’t even offensive linemen at the beginning of the season,” Gray said. “We had to get an o-line going, and they stepped up and, man, we’re at the state championship. We blocked, and I think hands down we had the best game of the season as an o-line unit here.” 

Joliet Catholic's Jordan Anderson (23) runs through a tackle from Sacred Heart-Griffin's J’veon Bardwell (10) in the first half of the IHSA Class 4A Football State Championship at Huskie Stadium in Dekalb, Ill., Friday, November 26, 2021. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

Joliet Catholic coach Jake Jaworski said the Hilltoppers’ senior leaders were freshmen when JCA beat Lombard Montini 35-27 in the 2018 Class 5A state championship. Just being on the sideline, Jaworski said, is an experience unable to be recreated.  

“They’ve (SHG) got a heck of a team, and I think 18 of their position players are juniors so this experience, you can’t beat the experience, you can’t beat the five weeks of extra practice time, as well,” Jaworski said. “As I look at these guys, they were all on the sideline for us in 2018 as freshmen and to be able to be freshmen practicing varsity for five more weeks, it’s over half of a (regular) season.  

“That’s going to be huge for them (SHG) coming back next year. I told (SHG coach Ken) Leonard after the game, there’s no doubt they’re going to be in great position coming back next year.” 

The road to SHG’s sixth state championship doesn’t end now. It only continues.  

Ryan Mahan

Contact Ryan Mahan: 857-246-9756, ryan.mahan@sj-r.com, Twitter.com/RyanMahanSJR.