Nothing says it’s the holiday season more for a Mount Carmel football player than a Thursday featuring tackling before turkey.
More often than not over the past 30 years, the Caravan has held its last full practice of the season on Thanksgiving morning, preparing for a state championship game 48 hours later.
So it will be again Thursday. While the country watches parades and pro football, over at 63rd and Dante, the Caravan will run through its plan for Lake Zurich on Saturday, when the two 12-1 powers meet in the Class 7A title game at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.
That plan will surely involve two things: rushing on offense and preventing the run on defense.
The ground game, whether via the option or straight-ahead rushing, is Mount Carmel’s trademark. That was never more clear than on Saturday at Edwardsville, when the only Caravan pass – Marko Boricich’s successful 2-point conversion toss to Brendan Griffin – didn’t even count in the statistics. The Caravan ran and ran and then ran some more, 49 times in all.
And the running was brutally effective, beginning with the first snap, when Matt Domer blasted through a hole at right tackle wide enough that no Tiger ever laid a finger on him. Domer’s 49-yard sprint to the end zone took seven seconds and put the Caravan up 7-0.
"Coach says anybody has to run through there, so we do our best to clear it out," senior lineman Luke Cipich said. "We went back to basic technique. That was completely our focus this week."
Cipich and his friends on the offensive line had gotten an earful the week before, after a showing at Downers Grove North in which Mount Carmel had rushed 57 times for 225 yards, Domer gaining 155, but scored only seven points. That those were the only seven points of the quarterfinal victory seemed not to matter to the critics on the coaching staff. At Mount Carmel, pride is taken in doing things the right way.
At Edwardsville, things were done the right way. The Caravan rushed for 272 yards, Domer gobbling up 178 of them. He scored three of Mount Carmel’s five touchdowns, Jimmy Mickens and Jaquan Buntyn scoring the others. Buntyn played the last series, Domer having been shaken up on the previous set and removed as a precaution, but the Caravan was dominant from Domer’s first sortie.
“Our whole thing was to start fast," Lenti added. "The offense helped set the tone by scoring three times early. I don't think they were expecting that at all. And it's nice to keep the field tilted with the kicking game and the defense."
There was that, too. The last two weeks, Downers Grove North and Edwardsville have combined for 14 yards rushing. Edwardsville ran for 3 yards on 21 carries. There was generally nowhere for the Tigers to go, except to the air, and on a cold, blustery day, Tigers quarterback Dan Marinko was good but not great, and he needed to be better than good.
“That goes back to our defense and our defensive coaches,” Lenti said. “Mark Antonietti does a tremendous job getting the fundamentals down with the kids, and all the defensive coaches, particularly my brother (and defensive coordinator) David, do a great job scheming against the other team, showing them things they haven’t seen before.”
This is Mount Carmel’s 17th state championship game appearance. The Caravan is 11-5 in previous outings, with Lenti’s teams 10-5. Nobody has coached in or won more title games than Lenti, whose 338 career victories across 30 seasons are a state record. Since he took the reins from Bill Barz in 1984, Mount Carmel is 98-17 in the playoffs.
If there is one theme across the decades, it’s the continuity of Lenti’s message.
“You’ve got to constantly improve if you want to be a success,” Lenti said. “You’re not resting on your laurels.”
The Caravan will have to be better than last week, for it faces a Lake Zurich squad that has the same gaudy 12-1 record, the top seed in the upper bracket of 7A, and a legacy of success that includes a runner-up berth in 2010 and a 7A title in 2007. Lenti knows a number of Lake Zurich staffers.
“It’ll be like old home week,” he said.