Rockford football powers Boylan, Byron and Le-Win could win state titles. Here's how

The Byron Tigers, shown here jumping onto the field for their regular-season finale in Byron on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022, is set to jump into the playoffs and defend their state title.
Jay Taft Matt Trowbridge
Rockford Register Star

Byron won the Class 3A state title last year and finished second in its two previous playoff runs. Lena-Winslow won the 1A title for the third time in four years and the fifth time since 2010. They are state title contenders every year. And so is NIC-10 champion Boylan this season in Class 5A.

The Illinois High School Association playoffs begin this week. Here is a look at how the three best teams in the Rockford area could end their playoff runs with a state championship.

Boylan Titans

Boylan's Connor Dennis hands off to Mekhi Glover on Friday, Oct. 14, 2022, at Boylan High School in Rockford.

This Boylan team is not like the great 2010 and 2011 teams that won back-to-back undefeated state titles. Those teams featured Boylan’s all-time leading rusher Tyreis Thomas, it’s season record-holder in touchdown passes in Lamont Toney and future NFL defensive lineman Dean Lowry.

And yet as great as those players were, they only played on one side of the ball. The current NIC-10 champions seem to play almost all of their stars except quarterback Connor Dennis both ways.

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So Boylan (8-1) isn’t as deep as it used to be. Or as big. But the Titans are loaded with athletes who can block as well as they tackle, defend the pass as well as they catch it, and run as well as they catch. These multi-skilled athletes give Boylan perhaps its best chance to win a state title since 2011. The Titans have reached the semifinals twice since then, but lost decisively to Chicago St. Rita, 42-21, in 2019 and to Batavia, 38-6, in 2013.

“This is an athletic group for us on both sides of the ball,” Boylan coach John Cacciatore said. “That’s the style of football we’re playing.”

That’s how it’s state title teams played too, running and passing with equal success. These Titans are one of the most balanced teams in conference history, with 1,671 yards rushing on the season and 1,599 passing, with two runners between 500 and 750 yards and five receivers between 200 and 450 yards.

Cacciatore says running will matter more in the playoffs.

“The one thing that is constant in northern Illinois in November is it’s going to get cold and it’s going to get rain, so you better be able to run the football,” he said. “And you better be able to stop the other team from running the football. Mother Nature may put a slippery football in front of you or a muddy football in front of you or windy conditions where you can’t throw the football and the only thing you can rely on is running the football.”

Not necessary. Boylan’s two best teams both threw for over 100 yards in the state title game. One of those games the Titans topped 200 yards passing and running. This team is a threat to do that every week.

“We’ve got options out there,” Cacciatore said. “That’s the beauty of playing complementary football.”

Boylan’s shiniest beauty, though, is on defense. The Titans are allowing an average of only 11 first downs a game. And almost 30 percent of those 100 first downs came either via penalty (13) or on fourth down (16).

That defense could spearhead a long playoff run. Boylan opens against a Hillcrest team that has reached the quarterfinals or semis three of the last four years but is only 5-4 this year. A second-round match could be similar: LaGrange Park Nazareth is 5-4 but a traditional power and ranked 10th in the state.

A potential quarterfinal matchup would probably be against defending state champ Oak Park Fenwick, also 5-4 this year, or No. 6-ranked Chicago Morgan Park (8-1). But Boylan wouldn’t have to play a top-five team in the Associated Press poll until a potential showdown against No. 2 Sycamore in the semifinals.

“It’s just a lot of guys who play well together,” Cacciatore said of Boylan’s defense. “Everything starts with our defensive line. They have played exceptionally well and if you can’t block the front three, you are never going to get to the second three. Everything starts there."

Byron Tigers

Quarterback Braden Smith drops back with the ball during Byron's regular-season finale in Byron on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022. Now the Tigers are getting set for the playoffs.

Like Boylan, this Byron squad is not built quite the same as last year's state champions, or the same as its great teams of the past. That doesn't mean this one can't make a run to the title.

"This team has a lot of confidence now," quarterback Braden Smith said recently.

Smith is one of the biggest reasons why this team is so different than the others before them: They have a versatile QB. Plus, there is no running back with the kind of stats that strikes fear into an opponent.

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Smith just ripped off a 140-yard rushing game with two touchdowns on Oct. 14 during a 49-14 blowout of Dixon, and he's passed for 273 yards with 4 TDs and no interceptions this season.

"I would agree, this year's team is a little different; but they all are," Byron coach Jeff Boyer said. "But (quarterback) Braden Smith adds a different dimension with his ability to throw it or run it. And we just have so many backs that can get the ball ... Maybe more than ever."

Freshman fullback Caden Considine started to break out of the pack of five or six strong running backs midway through the season, but then he sprained his ankle and missed the last three games. Since then, it's gone back to a running back-by-committee approach — and it worked.

Considine (438 yards rushing with 5 TDs) is expected back this week, and he joins a crowded backfield that also includes fellow-fullback Carsen Behn (459 yards and 8 TDs) as well as halfbacks Kye Aken (363 yards and 4 TDs), Brayden Knoll (354 yards and 5 TDs), Jacob Ross (253 yards and 1 TD), Everett Wichman (214 yards and 5 TDs), and Ashton Henkel (175 yards and 5 TDs).

Byron (8-1), which has held opponents to a conference-low 7.7 points per game, has rattled off eight straight wins heading into the playoffs, following a 15-7 overtime loss to Stillman Valley in the season opener. That loss is long gone for the hot Tigers.

"We've been playing great defense all year, and that's been key," Boyer said. "And as far as our offense goes, it's gotten a lot better. As we've gotten going, it's grown."

Now Byron, ranked fourth in the final-regular-season poll, will bolt into the Class 3A state bracket looking to defend its title, starting with a matchup against 5-4 Lisle, followed by a potential matchup with Winnebago (which it blasted 42-7 back on Sept. 2) and then possibly against No. 2-state-ranked, Reed-Custer in the quarterfinals.

Lena-Winslow Panthers

Lena-Winslow's Drew Streckwald hands off to Gunar Lobdell on Friday, Oct. 7, 2022, at Pecatonica High School in Pecatonica.

While Byron is just plain deep, Le-Win is three-deep at running back with some of the most skill you will see in a backfield on one team this year.

That's pretty par for the course for Le-Win, ranked No. 1 on all of the Class 1A polls this season, under 26th-year coach Ric Arand. The Panthers have won five titles in the past 12 years, and all of them have come via the ground attack.

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This year has been no different.

"It's been a pretty good group to work with," Arand said. "And they are talented."

Le-Win has three of the NUIC's top six leading rushers, led by first-year Panther Gunar Lobdell (who is right at 1,000 yards rushing with 14 TDs), but followed closely by Gage Dunker (943 yards and 20 TDs) and Jake Zeal (732 yards and 10 TDs).

"They all have their strengths, and they've all had their moments this year," Arand said. "We will lean on any and of them these playoffs. ... Our kids are hungry."

Le-Win (9-0) hasn't even really been challenged this year, with its closest game coming in the regular-season finale when the Panthers avenged a late-season loss to Forreston last year with a 28-14 handling of the Cardinals this year. Before that their closest game was a 54-32 midseason mauling of Fulton.

They expect to be tested in the playoffs.

"It's a little more wide open than it's been, and it's going to be tough," Arand said of his team's repeat efforts. "But this group was pretty much role players last year, and they're ready to be the ones. They're ready to go get one for themselves."

Le-Win opens against 5-4 Chicago Richards, and if the Panthers win, another current-5-4 team will be waiting: the winner of Oneida ROWVA/Willimsfield and Toulon Stark County.