We've been talking about the best teams in the history of the state football playoff and several readers have asked me to recall the best teams I've seen since I began observing and covering the high school game in the 1950s.
I have to admit that some of the best teams I've ever seen played in the pre-playoff era, prior to 1974. I've often wondered how they would have fared if they had to play 14 games in a season instead of nine. And how much better the caliber of competition might have been.
When pressed on the matter, I've always said that the two best teams I've seen were St. Rita and Evanston, which finished 1-2 in the Chicago Daily News poll in 1971.
Pat Cronin's St. Rita team, led by running back Billy Marek and offensive tackle Dennis Lick, won back-to-back Prep Bowls in 1970 and 1971.
Evanston coach Murney Lazier, who posted the highest winning percentage in state history, always has said that the 1971 squad was his best. And he produced six unbeaten teams. The 1971 squad featured end Emery Moorehead, fullback Steve Greene, tackle Keith Bruns and running back Alvin Keith.
Ironically, running back Howard Jones, whom Lazier described as the best player he ever coached, missed the season with an injury. Jones was a three-time state champion in the 100 and 220-yard dash events.
But I must confess that the team that made the biggest impression on me was the first great team I ever saw--Bloom in 1957. I was a senior at Blue Island (now Eisenhower) High School and Bloom was a rival in the old South Suburban League. The Chicago Heights school built a Yankee-like dynasty in the 1950s in football, basketball, baseball, wrestling and track and field. And most of those superb athletes started the school year on the football field.
Bloom's 1957 team featured running back Leroy Jackson, another state sprint champion, ends Homer Thurman and Chuckie Green and tackle Roger Elliott. In those days, the Bloom/Thornton rivalry was akin to Ohio State/Michigan, USC/Notre Dame, Army/Navy and Alabama/Auburn.
Here's my top 10 list that is open to debate:
1. St. Rita 1971. Cronin's masterpiece.
2. Evanston 1971. Lazier's masterpiece.
3. Bloom 1957. Leroy Jackson & Co.
4. Joliet Catholic 1975. Gordie Gillespie's masterpiece. He always has said it was the best of his five state championship teams. It featured linebackers Roger Hewlett and Chris Piazza, fullback Rick Thayer, quarterback Mark Parker and running backs Chris Rink and Dave Benigni.
5. Thornton 1965. Running backs LaMarr Thomas and Willie Snoddy triggered the offense. Thomas, one of the best athletes in state history, led Thornton to the 1966 state basketball title.
6. Wheaton Warrenville South. Quarterback Jon Beutjer, receivers Jon Schweighart, Eric McGoey and Jerome Collins and running back Carrice Burns keyed the most explosive offense in state history. Beutjer passed for nearly 4,000 yards and 60 touchdowns. They trounced Barrington 42-14 for the state title.
7. Loyola 1969. Bob Spoo's Ramblers, led by quarterback Geoff Steger, running back Jim Pooler, fullback John Foran and end Dave Fear, beat powerful Mendel twice and went on to smash Lane Tech 26-0 before 67,186 in the Prep Bowl at Soldier Field.
8. East St. Louis 1985. Bob Shannon's best team? The Flyers were led by running back Michael Cox, quarterback Kerwin Price, tackle Bryan Cox and end/defensive back Arthur Sargent. They crushed Brother Rice 46-0 for the Class 6A title and were acclaimed the No. 1 team in the nation.
9. Rockford East 1974. Ira Matthews, who went on to play in the NFL, scored on touchdown runs of 38 and 70 yards and a 41-yard pass from Dean Schlueter as Rockford East beat Normal Community 34-15 for the Class 4A title.
10. Glenbrook North 1974. Linebacker Jack Moller and running back Greg Woodsum were standouts as Harold Samorian's Spartans stunned heavily favored East St. Louis 19-13 in overtime for the Class 5A title.