With the upcoming IHSA football playoff pairings announcement on Saturday night, here are some teams with modest win-loss records who opponents probably wouldn’t want to see in the early rounds of the postseason.
Loyola Academy (5-3): The Ramblers have struggled this season. But head coach John Holocek has, once again, led his team to the state playoff field. So what gives? Loyola has been inconsistent on offense and has turned the football over way too often. The team has also been dealing with various injuries. But the defense (minus a 35-3 loss to Brother Rice) has generally played well this season. If the Ramblers can clean up the turnovers and find a way to get their offense back in a rhythm, this team can undoubtedly surprise some teams along the way in Class 8A.
Neuqua Valley (5-3): The Wildcats and head coach Bill Ellinghaus have dropped three tight games this season including a last possession, 21-14 decision to DuPage Valley Conference champion Naperville Central two weeks ago. If the Wildcats can continue to get steady production from a balanced offense, led by RB Will Cheviliar and QB John Gronowski, the defense is capable of keeping Neuqua Valley in every game this postseason.
Aurora Christian (5-3): Coach Dave Beebe’s Eagles have lost to three playoff-bound teams this season with a combined 21-3 record (IC Prep, St. Francis and Bishop McNamara). They have a potent spread-passing attack led by sophomore QB Ethan Hampton. Aurora Christian is also slated to wind up in the Class 1A bracket on pairings night. Their dynamic offense and passing game in general could be a tough matchup for opponents in, what usually is, Class 1A North bracket with teams that generally run the ball.
Barrington (5-3): The Broncos, under head coach Joe Sanchez, have also been dealing with a rash of mid-season injuries; that said, it looks like Barrington is getting healthy at the right time. Junior QB Tommy Fitzpatrick is back from injury and is a key catalyst for any Barrington postseason run. Fitzpatrick has weapons in junior WR EJ Darlington and senior RB Michael Curran.
Lake Zurich (5-3): The Bears made a starting quarterback change last week as Jack Moses took the reins. He promptly led the Bears to a 42-0 win over Mundelein. If the Bears can limit turnovers and continue to get strong production from their offense, the L-Z defense is more than capable of making life very difficult for any higher seeds that they could draw in the 7A state playoff field.
Edwardsville (5-3): The Tigers hit a rough patch starting the season with a 1-3 record. But they currently boast a four-game winnings streak heading into Friday night’s tilt at Collinsville. Edwardsville is led by senior QB Kendall Abdur Rahman (Notre Dame) and is a gamebreaker every time he touches the football. Sophomore RB Justin Johnson (and the team in general) possesses a ton of speed. There are athletes and playmakers on both sides of the football.
Here are some more lower seeds who could wreak havoc:
Providence Catholic (5-3): If the Celtics can get their running game going, beware.
Raby (5-3): The Raiders could be a handful in 4A.
St. Charles East (4-4): The Saints’ power-option game is always tough to defend.
Joliet Catholic (4-4): IF the Hilltoppers can beat Notre Dame on Friday, they could be a very tough out in 5A.
Crystal Lake South (5-3): A huge offensive line leads the way for the Gators.
Zion-Benton (4-4): The Zee-Bees can put as much talent on the field than most of their opponents.
Lemont (4-4): Needs a win Friday over rival Oak Forest. If the offense can keep the chains moving, the Indians’ defense can do the rest.
Crete-Monee (5-3): They are the Southland conference champs. Their first two losses in 2018? Lincoln-Way East (8-0) and Brother Rice (8-0).
Thornton (4-4): The Wildcats will need to upset Lincoln Way Central Friday. Thornton always has talent.
There are plenty of intriguing Cubs storylines to monitor this offseason from their potential pursuit of the big free agents to any other changes that may come to the coaching staff or roster after a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign.
But there's one question simmering under the radar in Cubs circles when it comes to this winter: How will the team solve the shortstop conundrum?
Just a few years ago, the Cubs had "too many" shortstops. Now, there are several different factors at play here that makes it a convoluted mess.
First: What will the Cubs do with Addison Russell? The embattled shortstop is in the midst of a suspension for domestic violence that will keep him off an MLB diamond for at least the first month of 2019.
Has Russell already played his last game with the Cubs? Will they trade him or send him packing in any other fashion this winter?
Theo Epstein mentioned several times he felt the organization needs to show support to the victim in the matter (Russell's ex-wife, Melisa) but also support for Russell. Does that mean they would keep him a part of the team at least through the early part of 2019?
Either way, Russell's days in Chicago are numbered and his play on the field took another big step back in 2018 as he fought through a hand injury and experienced a major dip in power. With his performance on the field and the off-field issues, it will be hard to justify a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in his second year of arbitration (prorated, with a month's worth of pay taken out for the suspension).
Even if Russell is on the roster in 2019, Javy Baez is unquestionably the shortstop for at least the first month while Russell is on suspension.
But what about beyond Baez if the Cubs want to give him a breather or disaster strikes and he's forced to miss time with an injury?
At the moment, there's nothing but question marks on the current Cubs shortstop depth chart throughout the entire organization and they're certainly going to need other options at the most important defensive position (outside of pitcher/catcher).
There's David Bote, who subbed in for Baez at short once in September when Baez needed a break and Russell was on the disabled list. But while Bote's defense at third base and second base has opened eyes around the Cubs, he has only played 45 games at short across seven minor-league seasons, including 15 games in 2018. There's also the offensive question marks with the rookie, who hit just .176 with a .559 OPS and 40 strikeouts in 108 at-bats after that epic ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12.
The Cubs' other current shortstop options include Mike Freeman (a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer), Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 in 2019 and has played all of 13 innings at shortstop since 2014), Ryan Court (a 30-year-old career minor leaguer) and Chesny Young (a 26-year-old minor-leaguer who has posted a .616 OPS in 201 Triple-A games).
Maybe Joe Maddon would actually deploy Kris Bryant at shortstop in case of emergency like a Baez injury ("necessity is the mother of invention," as Maddon loves to say), but that seems a lot more like a fun talking point than a legit option at this current juncture.
So even if Russell sticks around, there's no way the Cubs can go into the first month of the season with just Baez and Bote as the only shortstop options on a team that with World Series or bust expectations.
The Cubs will need to acquire some shortstop depth this winter in some capacity, whether it's adding to the Triple-A Iowa roster or getting a veteran who can also back up other positions. Right now, the free agent pool of potential shortstops is pretty slim beyond Manny Machado.
Epstein always says he and his front office look to try to mitigate risk and analyze where things could go wrong to sink the Cubs' season and through that lense, shortstop is suddenly right up there behind adding more bullpen help this winter.