Juniors are supposed to be quality backups, not headlining the 2003 Tribune All-State Football Team.
But in a rare season when seven such underclassmen were named to the first team, none had more impact than Maine South quarterback Sean Price, Niles West breakaway back Rashard Mendenhall and St. Rita running back Wade Weyer. Price, who already has broken the state record for completions in a season with 321, is in range of three more records when the Hawks face Lockport and second-team All-State QB Jake Christensen on Saturday in the Class 8A title game.
Like Price, Christensen is another junior experiencing a breakout season.
"Every year, you have juniors who want to beat out seniors for the starting spots," Price said. "Juniors always want more playing time, but coaches usually go with the seniors because they have more experience."
Price started five games as a sophomore before breaking his collarbone. He was hoping to pass for 2,500 yards and 25 touchdowns--goals he surpassed a mere six weeks into the season.
He'll take the field in Champaign having completed 321-of-479 passes for 4,407 yards and 53 touchdowns. His 10th attempt will surpass former Riverside-Brookfield QB Tim Brasic's 488 in 2001, and 233 yards will pass Brasic's 4,644 in that same season. Current Illinois quarterback Jon Beutjer of Wheaton Warrenville South set the state record for TD passes with 60 in 1998.
"I never expected anything like this," Price said. "It helps to have playmakers like All-Staters Alberto DeCicco (99 catches, 1,140 yards, 10 TDs) and Mike Labus (84 catches, 1,083 yards, 18 TDs). They turn a 5-yard pass into a 50-yard touchdown and make me look good."
Mendenhall knows exactly who made him look good this season as the 5-foot-11-inch, 215-pound gamebreaker rushed for 1,832 yards and 19 touchdowns, had four TD catches and threw two TD passes.
"I owe most of it to my older brother Walter," Mendenhall said. "He would run the ball down the field, get defenses to focus on him, and then I would run a counter and score the touchdown. He did all the dirty work."
As a tandem the Mendenhalls were the most dangerous offensive punch in the state, and both have accepted scholarship offers from coach Ron Turner at Illinois.
Weyer was named the Catholic League Blue offensive most valuable player after rushing for 2,160 yards and 26 touchdowns. He led St. Rita to the 6A semifinals with 866 yards and 11 TDs in four playoff games.
"My linemen and my fullback are the reasons why I did so well this year," Weyer said. "Our quarterback and the receivers also kept defenses honest. I have no idea how to top this next year."
Barrington's Dan Doering was positioned in his Wisconsin hunting spot earlier in the week when his dad, Rick, rumbled by in a truck proclaiming his son had made All-State--scaring off any nearby deer.
"It's an honor to make it as a junior," said Doering, a 6-6, 280-pound offensive lineman who already has attracted scholarship offers from Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern and is expecting written overtures from Michigan and Notre Dame in the spring.
"I worked hard on the weights in the off-season and began filling out. I was 6-5, 225 as a sophomore.
"I don't think I'm done filling out. I work out with trainer Mike Guttone, who used to work with the Bulls at the Berto Center. I could easily be over 300 pounds by next season."
Doering, rated the No. 2 junior offensive lineman in the Midwest by Joliet recruiting analyst Chris Pool, is anything but complacent.
"That high rating, I don't believe it," Doering said. "When I look at film, I think I'm the worst player on the field. All I see are ways I can get better."
Junior defensive lineman Cody Cielinski of Downers Grove North knocked around opposing quarterbacks all season, registering 13 sacks as the Trojans' defense racked up 50.
Joliet Catholic's junior middle linebacker Chris Jeske went about his work without much fanfare, making 105 solo tackles while more heralded All-State teammates Jim Jadron and Bobby Buchanan seized the headlines.
Jadron, a 6-5, 295-pound offensive lineman whom teammates describe as a "man mountain," and Buchanan, a cornerback and younger brother of Atlanta Falcons defensive back Ray Buchanan, will join Jeske as the Hilltoppers face Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin in Saturday's 5A title game.
"Making All-State is something I've been working for my whole career," Buchanan said. "Being named as a defensive back is great because that's where I'll play in college at Illinois."
Harper offensive lineman Roland Martin has narrowed his college choices to Tennessee, Oklahoma, Michigan State and Iowa, and admits No. 1 Oklahoma's dominant season is quite appealing.
"It would be exciting to play for a team like that," said the 6-6 Martin, who has pared down his body from 360 pounds to 320 in hopes of increasing his endurance.
Santino Panico became an All-Stater the old-fashioned way--with his performances on the field. Held back by a limited role as a junior, Panico burst onto the scene this year as two-way standout.
The Libertyville senior has more than 2,000 all-purpose yards and 22 touchdowns and is the Wildcats' third-leading tackler on defense with two interceptions, four fumble recoveries and 18 pass breakups.
"I've always had big dreams for myself," said Panico, who will lead Libertyville into Saturday's 7A title clash against Oswego and All-State offensive lineman Sean Staffeldt.
"I had no life last summer, working out three times a day. Just work harder than everyone else and keep believing in yourself."
Along with Panico, the All-State defense features playmakers such as Thornton defensive lineman Tim Jamison, linebackers Kyle Williams of Bolingbrook, Chris Patterson of Hubbard and Sam Carson of Downers Grove South and defensive backs Kwame Agyeman of Lake Park and Nate Lyles of Hubbard.
The 6-3, 235-pound Jamison was virtually unstoppable at defensive end, racking up 18 sacks along with 14 other tackles for losses, forcing five fumbles, blocking three kicks and knocking down 12 passes. According to Joliet analyst Tim O'Halloran, Jamison is leaning to Purdue over Wisconsin, Michigan State and Iowa.
Williams, who has made an oral commitment to Iowa, is rated the No. 2 linebacker in the country by Rivals.com and SuperPrep magazine. Patterson, who will be playing for coach Bob Stoops at Oklahoma next season, is rated No. 11 by SuperPrep while the nationally rated Carson will choose from among Illinois, Michigan State, Northwestern, Louisville and Indiana.
Lyles, the top-rated defensive back in the state, is getting a late recruiting rush from Michigan. Virginia, Notre Dame, Michigan State, Iowa and Boston College have made offers. Agyeman is considering Illinois, Oregon, Colorado, Kansas, Louisville and Indiana.
Another Public Leaguer, Simeon's 6-3 wide receiver Bryant Creamer, has a chance to equal a state record in Friday's Prep Bowl. Creamer has 67 catches for 1,297 yards and 23 TDs, and he needs three TD catches to tie the season record set by ex-Wheaton Warrenville South star Jon Schweighardt in 1998.