Lake Forest putting past behind it

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Joey Valdivia is a freshman on a senior-dominanted Lake Forest squad.
Lake Forest photo by Scott Sanford

For Lake Forest coach Jim Catanzaro, it’s the past that has helped drive the Foresters to their success this season. He said Lake Forest is not living in the past, but reminding the players it’s a place they don’t want to go back to.

The Foresters (6-1, 6-0 in the Midwest Conference) are on the brink of stunning the pundits and turning what had been seen as a two-team race between Illinois College and Monmouth into a one-team runaway. Lake Forest, picked sixth in the conference preseason poll and fourth in Kickoff 2012, is up by one game with three left to play.

To boot, Lake Forest has already beaten the conference favorites in consecutive weeks, including the Foresters dramatic fourth-quarter comeback win 28-24 over Monmouth last week. That was before the dramatic fourth-quarter victory against Illinois College 35-28. Starting to notice a pattern here?

“On the sideline during the game, there’s just a great feeling of confidence because we know we’re going to be there in the fourth quarter and that’s kind of been our specialty to date,” said Catanzaro, simply known at the northern Chicago suburb school as Coach Cat. “We know as long as we keep it close, we feel we’re going to be the better team in the fourth quarter because that’s what we’ve trained to be.”

Catanzaro, in his fourth season as head coach, said it has taken that time to build up his team. The seniors who took their lumps in consecutive 2-8 seasons in 2009 and 2010 and a 3-7 campaign last year are now administering the punishment.

“I think the biggest thing for the turnaround is that we’ve gotten older and more mature on the field and not dependent on freshmen anymore,” Catanzaro said. “That’s where we’ve been before. We had a smaller roster of 60 players and now we’ve been able to get it up the 80s and 90s and the older guys are playing now. They know the offense and defense very well.”

Catanzaro said stabilizing the offense, with offensive coordinator Craig Kerr has helped tremendously. He credits senior quarterback Pete Scaffidi with looking beyond personal numbers to help the team win. Last year, Lake Forest needed to pass and Scaffidi averaged 291 passing yards a game. While those numbers are down by more than 100 yards this season (182.2 yards per game), the Foresters are winning.

“As he’s matured, we’ve asked Pete to do a lot of different things this year to give our team a better chance at winning,” Catanzaro said. “We can throw the ball 40 times a game and he can throw for 3,000 yards like he did a year ago. That’s not what we need to do to win games. He’s doing a tremendous job at game management. We’re beating everyone in time of possession except for this past week. He’s been able to take advantage of big play opportunities this year instead of passing to create running lane opportunities.”

Probably his biggest play came with less than two minutes left against Illinois College with the score knotted at 28-28. Facing a fourth-and-11 at its own 19, Scaffidi found senior wide receiver Austin Sobey, who hauled in a big catch for a first down inside the Illinois College 5. Senior tailback Al Mitchell scored on the next play to give Lake Forest the win.

Last week, it was running back’s Joey Valdivia’s 43-yard touchdown run with 2:25 left in the game to give Lake Forest the win. Valvidia rushed for 136 yards on 15 carries.

“Offensively, we’ve got three seniors who dictate what we do, Pete, Al and Austin,” Catanzaro said. “One guy can have a hot day while another is having a cold day and we can still have success.”

Defensively, Lake Forest has been steadily improving. Linebackers Jordan Cruz and John Preston lead the Foresters in tackles while lineman Jake Rotkvich has 4.5 sacks this season. Catanzaro said junior outside linebackers Bryce Jones and John Dillon have both made their presence felt.

“We are battle scarred,” Catanzaro said. “We had nine returning starters this year on defense. They’ve been on those teams that gave up 40 and 50 points in a game and they’ve vowed not to let those things happen again. Our front seven have been able to bring pressure that we haven’t been able to do in the past without blitzing. Now we can do it with our front four, and everyone can play coverage.”

If Lake Forest wins out and goes to the playoffs for the first time since 2002, that Sobey’s catch against Illinois College could well define the Foresters season – if they win out.

“Right now we are focusing on Cornell,” Catanzaro said. “They are in their first year in our league and have had great success. Then, we play Ripon, who we haven’t beaten in the last eight years. We finish with St. Norbert, who we’ve beaten twice in the last 30 years. There’s no reason for us to start talking about conference championships and getting overconfident. We want our guys to stick to the philosophy of going 1-0 each week. That’s it. There’s no reason to talk about who we’ll play two or three weeks from now.”

If Lake Forest can maintain their fourth quarter philosophy as well, it will have a golden opportunity to prove the pundits wrong again.

Wheaton’s back against the wall

The Wheaton Thunder had been nationally ranked all season until its 35-30 loss to Elmhurst dropped the Thunder to 4-2 and 2-1 in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin play. The Thunder will face a tall order in an attempt to stay in the hunt for the CCIW title when it takes on No. 12-ranked Illinois Wesleyan (6-0) at home. The Titans are coming off of a 45-7 victory over Carthage. Elmhurst, on the other hand, is 5-1, 2-1 in league play behind the play of running back Scottie Williams, who rushed for 179 yards against Wheaton. They face Millikin (3-3, 0-3) this week in hopes of staying in contention.

Just a little offense

Concordia-Chicago and fellow Northern Athletics Conference foe Concordia (Wis.) wasted no offensive moment in Concordia-Chicago’s 47-44 overtime victory last week. Both teams combined for 1,199 yards in total offense, 683 of those yards by Concordia-Chicago. Concordia Chicago’s Andrew Maddox rushed for 355 yards on 40 carries while quarterback Jake Koehler, known for his arm, rushed for 100 more yards on 16 carries, including a 51-yard touchdown run with 3:44 left in the game, but a missed point-after kept the game tied and forced it into overtime.  Concordia (Wis.) quarterback Austin Damaschke completed 20 of 37 passes for 207 yards and four touchdowns.

The point barrages

The Green Knights almost beat the “Battle of the Concordias” point total single-handedly during its 79-7 victory over Lawrence. St. Norbert led 35-0 after the first quarter and 45-0 at halftime. And No. 23 Franklin (4-2) continued its punishment of Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference opponents this season. Since starting the season 0-2, Franklin has outscored its four HCAC opponents 225-47. That’s scoring an average of 56.3 per game while holding its opponents to 11.6, including back-to-back shutouts of Mount St. Joseph (38-0) and Anderson (69-0).