Most teams in the state of Illinois would take one look at the Providence Catholic schedule and cringe.
The Celtics’ 2014 slate is among the toughest in the state, if not the toughest. Six of those teams qualified for the playoffs last season, and their nine opponents combined for a 72-32 record, 18 playoff victories and a state title last season. Four of those teams are currently ranked in Edgy Tim’s Top 25 rankings, including conference foes No. 2 Loyola and No. 4 Mount Carmel, as well as No. 15 St. Rita and No. 25 Joliet Catholic.
There aren’t any bottom feeders on the schedule, either; even Week 8 opponent Brother Rice, which won just three games a year ago, beat playoff-bound Bishop McNamara and was within a score in five of its six losses, all to playoff qualifiers, last season, and could contend for the second season this year.
So while the Celtics prepare for nine straight clashes that could produce a record not indicative of their skill level of production, it’s a hurdle they’re excited about facing and ultimately conquering.
“We love our tough conference that we play in, we love our tough schedule,” senior quarterback Justin Hunniford said. “We don’t schedule many easy non-conference games, which prepares us for the playoffs.”
Case in point, last season the Celtics went 5-4 in the regular season and received a No. 8 seed in the Class 6A state bracket. They went on to knock off the 8-1 Crete-Monee Warriors and 7-2 Quincy Blue Devils before falling to East St. Louis in the state quarterfinals.
“I think our record last year doesn’t speak to how good we were. I thought we were really good but we just played a lot of tough teams,” wide receiver Miles Boykin said. “But the goal is always to be better than the year before, so we definitely want to make it to the state championship and win it.”
That journey begins Friday against rival Joliet Catholic. Just eight miles separate the two campuses, and the teams’ history – which includes a combined 22 state titles – has formed what is now known as the Holy War, which not only acts as a crosstown matchup for bragging rights but also an all-important start to the season.
The series began in 1989 in the second round of the IHSA playoffs, a game the Celtics won 15-0. Since then the two teams have squared off nine other times, with Providence holding a 7-3 advantage in the all-time series.
Athletic director Doug Ternik, a Providence alum and former offensive coordinator, said scheduling the annual rivalry against a top-tiered team is crucial for the Celtics to prepare for the rest of their gauntlet of a schedule.
"It’s not only confidence in our players, it provides a great benchmark of where we’re at and where we have to be," he said. "The kids know where they have to be. It gets them better and gets them an opportunity to hit somebody in a different jersey. Week 1 is Week 1, neither team will be the same in nine weeks, but it really is an opening gauge for us."
Matchup No. 11 won't be any easier than the first 10 as the Hilltoppers return a bevy of defensive starters from last year’s 10-2 team. JCA has been to 16 straight playoff appearances, winning six state titles in that span, and is 29-5 at Joliet Memorial Stadium the last seven seasons.
Two of those home wins came against Providence, in 2010 and 2013, and though the Celtics were victorious at home in 2009 and 2012 – the two teams didn’t play in 2011 – there’s still a bad taste in their mouth and a revenge factor they’re hoping to avenge right down the road in Joliet.
“Every game’s the most important, but JCA, it’s just a rivalry,” said Iowa-bound tight end Nate Vejvoda. “We don’t really like each other, so it just gets a fire going in us. It’s a lot of pressure and a lot of emotion.”
Added Hunniford: “Starting out Week 1 with JCA, that’s exactly what you want every year. You want to come out, take on a rival and make a statement early in the year.”
Friday will mark a distinct contrast in offenses, as the run-heavy Hilltoppers square off against the aerial assault of the Celtics. Both teams will trot out inexperienced offensive lines, so the battle may be won on the defensive side of the ball, where the Celtics are confident they’re improved from a year ago.
But one area both groups have in common is understanding the importance of beginning the season 1-0. For Providence, a brutally tough conference schedule awaits them, where even some of the best teams in the state would struggle to pick up the necessary five wins to qualify for the playoffs.
That means taking victories wherever they can get them, and to pick one up against a rival and one of Illinois’ best could become a springboard for the rest of the season.
“You take them one game at a time, and Week 1 is a huge one for us. Obviously Joliet Catholic has a great tradition as we do,” Providence head coach Mark Coglianese said. “It’s a big game for us and it’s a big win we need. We’ve got to find five wins somewhere, so getting off to a good start is very important.”