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Panthers aim to win first state title

Running back Justin Jackson carries the ball during Glenbard North’s semifinal win Saturday at Loyola Academy in Wilmette.
Running back Justin Jackson carries the ball during Glenbard North’s semifinal win Saturday at Loyola Academy in Wilmette.

There’s one important detail that has eluded Glenbard North football in its three trips to the state title game since 1991.

A victory.

The Panthers have quietly developed into one of the state’s upper-echelon programs during that span, with 12 playoff appearances in the past 13 seasons. Yet that first-ever state title has proven to be elusive.

The team will get another crack at it Saturday in the program’s fourth trip to state.

While the Panthers look to break through, on the other sideline, Mt. Carmel hopes to add to an already lengthy resume. The Caravan have won 10 state championships since 1980, all but one under current head coach Frank Lenti, while adding four runner-up trophies.

“It’s another historically great team in Mt. Carmel, much like Maine South,” said Glenbard North coach Ryan Wilkens, whose team beat the Hawks in the quarterfinals and Loyola this past Saturday in the semis. “They have multiple state championships. It will be a tough go.”

Glenbard North’s task on defense is to stop Mt. Carmel’s option attack, a type of offense the Panthers have seen only one time prior this fall, in Week 2 against Carmel. Caravan running backs Matt Domer and Draco Smith have rushed for 1,290 and 799 yards, respectively, and a combined 29 touchdowns while QB Don Butkus checks in with 508 rushing yards and 13 scores. He has also passed for 1,071 yards.

Butkus though is questionable to play due to an ankle injury suffered in the team's semifinal win over Neuqua Valley.

“The option they’ve got is very difficult to simulate,” Wilkens said. “Their quarterback is very good and they run three or four different types of options, not just one. And they do play-action off of it as well.
“They go split-backs and along with their quarterback, all three of those kids run.”

Defensively, Mt. Carmel is just as strong, having allowed just 46 points during its four playoff games.
“They have a half-dozen shutouts or so,” the coach said. “Their defensive line is very good, their linebackers are aggressive and their defensive backs are very good athletes.”

Glenbard North will counter with running back Justin Jackson, who has carried the ball a whopping 129 times over the past three weeks, and quarterback Brian Murphy, a dual-threat signal caller and steadying influence for the offense.

The Panthers also feature an opportunistic defense and a mentality to focus on only the things in their control,  a mantra that has served the team well through the first 13 weeks of the season.

“The kids around the school are very excited,” Wilkens said, “and our Super Fans have been great all year. But as a program, we’ve got to stay focused on ourselves and try to improve every day. This week, especially with Thanksgiving and everything, we have to stay extremely focused.”

Semifinal victory
The Panthers extracted a measure of revenge in reaching this point, beating Loyola 27-24 last Saturday in Wilmette. The Ramblers had knocked out Glenbard North in the semifinals a year ago before losing to Bolingbrook in the Class 8A title game.

This time around, Jackson was the main difference as he gained 232 yards on the ground, added three catches for 30 yards and scored all four touchdowns.

“I feel like I had a minimal impact last year,” Jackson said, “and I told myself that I’m going to have a bigger impact this year. I feel like we as an offense moved the ball a lot better. We scored 27 points, but we scored in the second half. That was important. Last year we couldn’t do that.”

Making the day even more special for the junior was the presence of a special person on the sidelines, his older brother, Phil, who is now a freshman in college.

“He taught me so many things,” Jackson said. “I miss having him at home. All the things he taught me, it’s all culminating here. It was great to see him on the sidelines. I just had to give him a hug because I could feel it. There was still a game to play, but I was starting to get that feeling.”

Glenbard North led 14-3 at halftime and extended that margin to 27-10 in the third quarter before Loyola scored a pair of late touchdowns to make it interesting.

“This year we had the experience of witnessing last year what happened,” Murphy said, “and this year we came out and finished the job. We knew we were not letting it slip away again.

“I saw a bunch of the guys I played with last year in the stands up there. I was looking at them. It was nice doing it for the whole Glenbard North community.”

— Staff reporter Dan Santaromita contributed to this report.

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