The numbers are impressive -- the offense is averaging 40 points per game and the defense has allowed only 79 points in 11 games, only 15 in the last five -- but Mount Carmel coach Frank Lenti, in his 29th season, is wise enough not to make any proclamations before the final whistle.
"Is this the best team I've coached since our last state championship team in 2002? It has a chance to be one of the best since we won in 2002 but I can't decide until the season is over, to see what they ultimately accomplish," said Lenti, doing his best to straddle a fence without falling off. "Remember, we didn't win the (Catholic League's) Blue Division. Loyola won the title and won all the awards -- Coach of the Year (John Holecek), Offensive Player of the Year (Peter Pujals), Defensive Player of the Year (John Rushin) and Player of the Year (Luke Ford). They got all the honors, all the bells and whistles."
But Mount Carmel, which lost to Loyola 30-27 in overtime in Week 6, still is very much in contention for the Class 8A championship. The Caravan (10-1) will meet Lyons (7-4) on Saturday night in a quarterfinal match-up in Western Springs.
"The nice thing these kids have is great chemistry," Lenti said. "They really like being around one another. They have bought into the 'we' thing, not the 'me' thing. Last year, we had some seniors who were in it for themselves, about scholarships and one-day camps. But these kids are more focused on the team. They see the other way doesn't work."
Lenti has won nine state championships but none since 2002. He won four in a row from 1988-91 and five in seven years from 1996-2002. And he finished second in 2005, 2006 and 2010. Last year's 10-4 team lost to Class 8A champion Bolingbrook in the second round, then settled for the Prep Bowl title.
This year's squad lacks star quality -- no one compares to last year's standout, Brandon Carr, or such blue chippers of the past such as Simeon Rice, Donovan McNabb, Tony Furjanic and Nate Turner -- but Lenti is impressed with its leadership, chemistry, balance, attitude and drive.
He cites kicker Ivan Strimic and punter Joe Pavlik, junior defensive lineman Steven Richardson, running backs Matt Domer and Draco Smith, defensive backs Justin Sanchez and Vincent Speller, tackle Brian Parker and the four captains -- quarterback Don Butkus, wide receiver Jason Gasser and linebackers Connor Griffin and D.J. Romero.
"We have a complete team," Lenti said. "Strimic and Pavlik are by far the best kicker and punter in the league. When the offense is on a roll, it has done a great job of keeping the defense off the field. The captains have done an exceptional job. They have led the team in a great direction. The kids won't accept mediocrity. I felt all along if they followed the process, if they did what we asked them to do, they could be very successful."
If his three years as a starter, if Gasser has heard Lenti's "follow the process" speech once, he has heard it a hundred times. After a while, it starts to make sense.
"I feel we do a great job of following the process, as the coach says. If we listen to the coaches and do what we are taught, we will be fine," Gasser said. "This year we are more of a team. We work hard in practice. There is a lot of chemistry, no lazy guys. We don't want anyone bringing us down. Last year, too many were in it for the ride and didn't contribute. They were just posers, the coach said, they just wore the costume.
"But this team is different. We have no standouts, just a lot of good high school players, hard workers. All of us want to accomplish the same goal--win the state title. We don't think about scholarships or individual glory. We have pride in the school and the program."
Lenti has made one subtle change in his teaching process and Gasser thinks it has been a significant addition.
"In practice, we still do 60 minutes on offense and 60 minutes on defense and 15 minutes on kicking. But this year he has added a 15-minute combo period during the offensivedefensive time to work on situational plays like third-and-long and third-and-short and first-and-10," Gasser said. "It gets us more prepared. Our goal on first down is to average five or more yards. If we keep working on first down, it helps us to attain our goals and converting long third-and-10 plays and working on pass plays and draws and screens."
Gasser, a 6-foot, 190-pounder with 4.54 speed, has caught 20 passes for 203 yards, averaging 20.1 yards per reception, and has scored five touchdowns. He and Speller are Butkus' big-play and go-to receivers. And it doesn't bother Gasser one bit that he hasn't caught more passes.
He lives in Dyer, Indiana, and he would have enrolled at Andrean in Merrillville but his father, who played football at St. Francis de Sales, wanted to send him to Mount Carmel because of the academics and football tradition.
"I wanted to be part of a winning program," Gasser said. "As a freshman, my father wanted me to be a quarterback. I tried it, then was switched to defensive back. Then I started the first game at wide receiver, which I had played in middle school, and I've played that position ever since."
Gasser recalls losing to Maine South in the 2010 state championship game. As a senior, he hopes to write a different scenario.
"As a senior, I know I have to take a leadership role and I want all of us to have the experience of going Downstate and winning," he said.
He loves football and would like to play in college. He is hearing from several small schools. But he might end up playing baseball at Ball State. That's all in the future, something to consider in December, after the season is over. At the moment, football is the only thing on his mind.
"It would frustrate me if I didn't win one state title in high school," Gasser said.