Joe Fitzgerald remembers the moment like it was yesterday.
Brother Rice had just suffered an embarrassing 49-14 loss to Mount Carmel on Sept. 29 of last season.
The loss dropped the Crusaders to 1-5 and officially eliminated them from the state playoffs.
Fitzgerald, a 6-foot-3, 195-pound linebacker, reached for his phone at the start of a disappointing bus ride back to campus.
“The first thing I did was look for the date of when the (Class 8A) state championship game was for this year,” he said. “I said to myself, ‘We’re going to be there.’”
It remains to be seen whether the top-seeded Crusaders (9-0) will be in Champaign on Nov. 24 playing for the 8A state championship. However, there’s no disputing they are one of the favorites to win it all.
The program last won a state title in 1981 in 6A.
Coach Brian Badke’s team will open up its playoff march against 32nd-seeded Zion-Benton (5-4).
“We’re going to learn about Zion-Benton,” Badke said. “All I know is they played Stevenson and Libertyville and they have a tough conference schedule. There are no cakewalks in 8A. To be the No. 1 seed and being the smallest 8A school is a great opportunity for us.”
Hillcrest (9-0) in 5A and Richards (9-0) in 6A also earned top seeds. Lincoln-Way East (9-0) is a second seed in 8A.
It’s been a remarkable turnaround from last season for Brother Rice, which suffered through mounting injuries that resulted in a 2-7 record.
“The kids put in the work to get to this point,” Badke said. “We’ve had great leadership. The seniors were hungry to win after last season. They love football, they love to compete and the want to get better. They’re a special, special group.”
Brother Rice has been unstoppable, registering the program’s first undefeated regular season and outscoring opponents 304-52.
Last season withstanding, success is nothing new to the senior class, which had consecutive 9-0 seasons as freshmen and sophomores.
Senior quarterback John Bean has been the catalyst on offense, along with running back Jessi Plunkett and receiver Dylan Summers. As good as the Crusaders have been, Bean believes their best football is ahead of them.
“Absolutely,” he said. “We’re confident we will continue to get better.”
Rice wasted little time improving upon 2017. No sooner after turning in their equipment did the start for redemption in 2018 begin in the weight room.
“We connected in the offseason,” Bean said. “We were all together working hard for the same goal. The playoffs is what we’ve been looking forward to.”
Fitzgerald isn’t concerned about future playoff opponents, which could include a semifinal battle against either fourth-seeded Homewood-Flossmoor or rival Marist, a fifth seed. He’s confident if the Crusaders play their game, they’re going to be tough to stop.
“Keep doing what we’ve been doing,” he said. “We put a lot of trust in each other. That’s a big part of our success. We’re just junkyard dogs, blue-collar kids. It’s been a lot of work and a lot of fun. We expect to keep going.”
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