FOOTBALL

Top-ranked Sacred Heart-Griffin can win an IHSA football state title. Here's how

Sacred Heart-Griffin's KeShon Singleton, right, escapes from Rochester's Amar'e Franklin as Singleton runs the ball during the game at SHG Friday August 26, 2022.
Ryan Mahan
State Journal-Register

This is the postseason that coaches and players with the Sacred Heart-Griffin football team have been eyeing since last year.  

Once the Cyclones left Huskie Stadium in DeKalb at the end of a 56-27 loss to Joliet Catholic in the Class 4A state title game in 2021, SHG was the prohibitive favorite for the 4A state title this year.  

Joliet Catholic graduated 15 starters from that state title team. With SHG returning almost all of its roster and with the motivation to send the state’s winningest football coach with a sixth state championship, there wasn’t much seen standing in its way. 

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Though that’s not how the Cyclones are approaching things on West Washington Street.  

“If you don't win this one, then you don't get to move on,” Ken Leonard told The State Journal-Register's Bill Welt. “We have a model. We want to practice on Monday, that's the big thing.” 

Starting the road to Champaign

While the company line will be toed in the huddles of the SHG practices and during film review, prognosticators can look ahead and see what a path to a possible state championship for the Cyclones would look like.  

The No. 2-seeded Cyclones (9-0) host Spring Valley Hall to open its road to the Class 4A state championship at 7 p.m. Friday at Ken Leonard Field. No. 15 seed Hall won the Illinois High School Association’s second annual Pork and Pigskins State Championship contest for the best concession stand pork chop sandwich.

That feat, announced Monday by the IHSA, will be the highlight of the week for the Red Devils (5-4).  

This isn’t meant to be flippant. It’s just highly doubtful Hall — or even second-round possible opponents No. 7 Olney Richland County or No. 10 Waterloo — have seen something near the quality of the SHG offense.  

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Second-year starting quarterback Ty Lott has completed 75% of his passes (120 of 159) for 1,927 yards, has 29 touchdowns and has been picked off just once — in the rain. The Cyclones’ offense hasn't seen the field for much of the second half in the nine regular season games. Four receivers have caught more than 10 passes — Madixx Morris with 34 catches, 594 yards and eight TDs; Air Force-commit Ke’Shon Singleton (25-364-9); Jake Hamilton (19-328-1), and Kyle Long (11-205-3).  

Richland County (which finished second in the Little Illini) and Waterloo (third in the Mississippi Valley) will be frustrated offensively as the SHG defense — underappreciated because of how dynamic the team’s offense is — just doesn’t allow big plays. Cory West has continued to lead the CS8 in tackles and finished with the regular season with 107 of them. SHG’s defense has intercepted 14 passes and has recovered 11 fumbles.  

Sacred Heart-Griffin's Jake Hamilton catches a pass while being guarded by Rochester's Camron Beal during the game at SHG Friday August 26, 2022. The pass set up a touchdown run the nest play.

Quarterfinals and ... another Leonard Bowl?

The third round could feature a pair of undefeated teams if No. 3 Macomb survives No. 14 Quincy Notre Dame (5-4) in the first round and either No. 6 Murphysboro or No. 11 Columbia in the second. But the Bombers are the only 4A school in a conference mostly for Class 1A-3A schools. Macomb’s schedule cannot possibly prepare it for the onslaught of a team that barely knows the word punt.  

SHG has outscored opponents 508-79, including eight-time state champion Rochester 62-27 in Week 1. 

Here’s where things get interesting for the Cyclones. Could fans be in for Leonard Bowl, Playoff Edition, Part III? If so, for the second-straight year, it would be in the semifinals.  

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In 2019, Derek Leonard and Rochester beat SHG 49-35 in the Class 5A quarterfinals en route to the 5A state championship — Rochester’s eighth since it joined the Central State Eight in 2010.  

Last year, it was the father’s turn as Ken Leonard’s Cyclones beat Rochester 49-42 in the 4A semifinals. It was Ken Leonard’s ninth trip to the state finals. A win in the semifinals would propel the league’s elder statesman to an even 10th championship game appearance in his 39th season — and last of a 43-year career.

With that much state championship hardware between both Rochester and SHG — and the recent success of both schools — the south bracket finale might be the de facto state title game.

Sacred Heart-Griffin head football coach Ken Leonard hugs Sacred Heart-Griffin's Noah Gray (52) after the Cyclones were defeated by Joliet Catholic 56-27 in the IHSA Class 4A Football State Championship at Huskie Stadium in Dekalb, Ill., Friday, November 26, 2021. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

Championship game

Richmond-Burton has had an incredible season. The state’s No. 2 team in The Associated Press’ Class 4A statewide rankings — behind, who else? SHG — went undefeated and won the Kishwaukee River/Interstate Eight Blue Conference. The Rockets have outscored opponents 403-100. In 2011, Rochester survived a frenetic Richmond-Burton comeback to win the Class 4A state title. In 2019, Richmond-Burton won its second state championship and first since 1992, with a win over Murphysboro in the 4A title game. Some AP voter in the state has awarded Richmond-Burton a first-place vote in 4A for several weeks.  

Anything can happen in the postseason, but few teams carve out their mission statement a year in advance. SHG did, and the Cyclones have followed through and put a tick in every box this season. There aren’t many reasons to think they can’t continue on to send Ken Leonard out with his sixth state championship — especially with a team that’s had such a singular goal all season. 

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“We have a lot to prove going all of the way there and then falling short,” Singleton told The State Journal-Register before the season began. “It's hard to get back there. You have a target on your back. There's always room for improvement, always wanting to get better and always wanting to do things better. That's just our goal for this year. We did a lot what we wanted to do last year and now it's time to just be better than that and finish out on top.” 

Contact Ryan Mahan: 788-1546, ryan.mahan@sj-r.com, Twitter.com/RyanMahanSJR.