Salata, Libertyville make late-season run

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Salata, Libertyville make late-season run

The definition of a team player is someone who rushes 24 times for 135 yards and one touchdown in one game, then doesn't complain when he is told he is being replaced by another running back for the next game.

Meet Libertyville's Joey Salata.

"I really have no problem with it," said the 5-foot-10, 185-pound senior who also starts at free safety. "I like to fill in when I can on offense. I like to make an impact. But my first priority is to lead the defense, to make sure everybody lines up correctly and is in the right spot.

"Sure, it is exciting to run for 135 yards. I always take snaps in practice. Brian Swift is our leading rusher (77 carries, 535 yards) and he has been out with a hip injury for three weeks. So week to week, I was ready to play. But he's supposed to be back this week. That's a big plus for us.

"I grew up on offense. Guys who score touchdowns get all the publicity. But as a sophomore I played linebacker and grew to love playing defense. You don't get as much attention but I prefer hitting to carrying the ball. And I love the challenge of playing together as a unit, all 11 guys."

Libertyville's defense has recorded two shutouts in a row. The Wildcats completed a 7-2 regular season with a 40-20 victory at Wauconda last Friday. It is their first winning season since 2006. The Wildcats will play at Machesney Park Harlem in the first round of the Class 7A playoff.

It has been a time of transition for the program. Last year's team was 5-5. It was the last season for coach Randy Kuceyeski, who retired after posting a 133-58 record in 18 years. His 2003 team finished second in the state playoff and his 2004 team won the state championship.

Last year's team had to overcome a lot of adversity. The overriding factor was Kuceyeski's well documented battle with cancer. The Wildcats were 4-3 and shut out Warren to qualify for the state playoff. They lost to unbeaten state champion Rockford Boylan in the first round.

"We realized when we play as a unit and play consistent and everybody does their job, offense and defense, we can compete with anybody. We shows the kind of potential we have," Salata said. "Losing to Boylan gave us a taste of what playoff football is like, so much more speed. So I'm not surprised at what we have done this year.

"This is a core unit, the seniors. We've played together since middle school. We played on the Libertyville Boys Club traveling team in eighth grade. This is what we dreamed about, being seniors and leaders of the team, to have a great senior year and make a run in the playoff.

"Last year, we got experience. This year, we come back every week with a business-like approach. We love having fun. We enjoy being with each other. What is our edge? Our mental preparation. The coaches do a great job of preparing us each week."

In Libertyvlle's 17-0 victory over Zion-Benton two weeks ago, Salata rushed for 135 yards and one touchdown and intercepted a pass for the second game in a row. The swarming defense allowed only three first downs an 55 yards of total offense and forced five turnovers.

In last Friday's 40-20 rout of Wauconda, quarterback Jack Deichl completed 16 of 23 passes for 231 yards. Austin Williams caught seven for 114 yards and three touchdowns. Bryan Scanlan caught four for 52 yards. Conor Simpson rushed for 127 yards.

But while the offense averaged 30 points per game in the first five weeks, the defense has stepped up in recent games. "Our defense has done a great job lately. They've just played very sound football. They haven't given up the big play. They've been physical and smart and that's what we expect of them," first-year coach Mike Jones said.

Jones is no stranger to the Libertyville program. He coached at Grayslake Central for 13 years before moving to Libertyville. He was Kuceyeski's defensive coordinator for eight years so it isn't surprising that the Wildcats' 4-2-5 alignment has been effective.

"With 16 starters returning, I was optimistic," Jones said. "We kept the same defense. Offensively, we've gone more to a wing T from a zone pistol. Why? I wasn't thrilled with the running back eight yards deep in the pistol.

"We're trying to build some consistency. When we do consistently what we are coached to do, we are good. But we have been inconsistent this year, our blocking and tackling and execution."

Libertyville has fallen behind in several games but rarely failed to come back. The Wildcats trailed Barrington by 17 and rallied to win. They lost to Stevenson 14-9 after falling behind 14-0. They trailed Warren by 14 and came back to win.

"There is a lot of fight and determination in them," Jones said. "We could be better. I would like to revisit some games we lost. We laid an egg against Lake Forest (they lost 33-13). But we have come back and our defense is playing well. Going forward, we must be consistent in the playoff."

The key could be 6-foot-5, 220-pound senior quarterback Jack Deichl, who has completed 136 of 211 passes for 1,667 yards and 12 touchdowns. He was 18 of 21 for 235 yards vs. Barrington, 13 of 26 for 201 yards vs. Stevenson and 22 of 33 for 310 yards vs. Warren.

He struggled in recent weeks, according to Jones, until last Friday's game at Wauconda. He was 16 of 28 for 159 yards vs. Lake Forest. If he continues to regain his early-season touch and Swift returns to form and three injured offensive linemen return to the lineup, Jones is optimistic that his team will make a good account of itself in the playoff.

Other players he is counting on are 6-foot-1, 180-pound senior wide receiver Austin Williams, a big-play threat who has caught 42 passes for 575 yards and eight touchdowns, 5-foot-9, 180-pound junior running backreceiver Conor Simpson, who has rushed for more than 500 yards and caught 40 passes for 421 yards, 6-foot, 195-pound senior linebacker Drew Krinitsy, 6-foot-1, 190-pound senior linebacker Kevin Verkler, 6-foot-5, 235-pound senior offensive tackle Brandon Stanfel and 6-foot, 210-pound senior defensive tackle Logan Klepac.

"We have been in a lot of tough battles this year," said Salata, who didn't carry the ball at all until three weeks ago, when Libertyville defeated Lake Zurich 3-0. "We have been through pressure situations. We have been down against good teams. When we are down, it doesn't bother us. We have been in that situation and found a way to win."

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Five Things from Blackhawks-Canucks: Corey Crawford rebounds

Five Things from Blackhawks-Canucks: Corey Crawford rebounds

The Blackhawks’ starts have been all over the map this season but their finishes have usually been strong. That was the case again on Sunday night as the Blackhawks took a lead, lost a lead and regained a lead for good in their 4-2 victory over the Vancouver Canucks.

This one featured a little bit of everything. So let’s just get to the Five Things to take from the Blackhawks’ victory over Vancouver.

1. Jonathan Toews breaks through. If the Blackhawks captain’s confidence was a little shaken with his lack of scoring this season, it should’ve gotten a boost with his Sunday outing. Toews’ goal and three assists were as big for him as they were the Blackhawks, who needed every bit of it late against the Canucks. In his last 12 games Toews has three goals and eight assists. He’s getting there. Said coach Joel Quenneville, “it seems like he was around the puck way more and when he does that, usually good things happen.”

2. Great start. This hasn’t been written very often but it was more than evident on Sunday night. If this wasn’t the Blackhawks’ best opening period of the season it was pretty close, as they broke out to a 2-0 lead against the Canucks. The Blackhawks, outside of a 3 ½-minute sequence without a shot on goal, were tenacious and ready to shoot, taking an 18-9 shots-on-goal edge in that first.

3. Corey Crawford rebounds. Quenneville considered Scott Darling for this game, an understandable thought with Darling coming off a 30-stop shutout. But he wanted Crawford to get back to where he was prior to his appendectomy, and Crawford took a step in that direction on Sunday night. In stopping 26 of 28 shots Crawford got his 18th victory of the season and 200th of his career. Quenneville said Crawford “looked like he was in control.”

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4. Michal Kempny’s tough stretch. When Kempny has been good this season he’s been very good. When he’s been bad... The defenseman was in the penalty box when the Canucks scored their first goal and he was beaten by Bo Horvat on the Canucks’ second goal. Kempny didn’t play the final 14 minutes of the game. Quenneville, who liked what Kempny brought on the team’s road trip, said Kempny just has to work through some things. “Coverage with awareness and knowing sometimes it’s man coverage, sometimes it’s playing the puck and clearing the loose stuff,” Quenneville said. “Defenseman is a tough position as you’re growing and learning it, but the more you play the better you play and I still think he’s making progress.”

5. Brian Campbell gets to keep No. 500 this time. Campbell thought he had his 500th point against the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday night but it was taken away. Well he got it back on Sunday night, setting up Richard Panik’s 11th goal of the season in the first period.