Joliet Catholic has been a dominant force in Illinois High School Association football for decades, holding the record for most state championships with 15. The Hilltoppers continued their legacy of success this season, defeating rival Providence 31-21 in a Class 5A semifinal Saturday afternoon at Joliet Memorial Stadium to secure a spot in their 20th state championship game.
This Joliet Catholic team embodies the program’s core values of opportunistic defense and effective running, but they also possess a new dimension that has made them even more formidable: a potent passing game led by quarterback Andres Munoz.
Munoz, a senior, showcased his passing skills throughout the game, completing 6 of 8 passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns. He also added a rushing touchdown, demonstrating his versatility and contributing to the Hilltoppers’ 28-6 halftime lead.
HJ Grisgby was a workhorse on the ground, rushing for 130 yards on 26 carries, consistently gaining tough yards and keeping the offense moving. The Joliet Catholic defense was also in top form, forcing six turnovers from six different players, highlighting their ability to create scoring opportunities.
Munoz’s passing game emerged as a key factor in the Hilltoppers’ success. Early in the season, the coaching staff experimented with alternating quarterbacks, but Munoz has since solidified his position as the starter.
“We wanted to make sure we had the right player under center,” said Joliet Catholic coach Jake Jaworski. “And Andres has proven that he’s a competitor. He consistently makes big throws at crucial moments and takes care of the ball.”
Jaworski acknowledged that some teams may have more passing opportunities than Joliet Catholic, but he emphasized Munoz’s ability to capitalize on his chances and convert them into touchdowns.
Munoz credited the defense for setting up the offense with good field position, allowing him to make plays with his arm. He also acknowledged that the passing game took some time to develop.
“It took us a while to get everyone rolling and on the same page,” Munoz admitted. “But we always knew we had the potential to be a great passing team.”
Joliet Catholic fell behind early in the game, trailing 6-0 after Providence quarterback Leo Slepski connected with Xavier Coleman for a 52-yard touchdown pass. However, the Hilltoppers responded with a vengeance, taking advantage of four Celtics turnovers to score 28 consecutive points and take control of the game.
Munoz threw touchdown passes to Larry Stringham for 12 yards and Adrian Washington for 31 yards. He also added a rushing touchdown of his own, and Stringham ran for a two-yard score.
The Joliet Catholic defense continued to dominate, with fumble recoveries by Nico Ronchetti (who also blocked a PAT) and Zach Pomatto, interceptions by Conner O’Donnell and Tai Sesta, and a fumble recovery by Daniel Rouse in the second half. Anthony Brown added to the defensive dominance with an interception. Up front, Wisconsin-bound lineman Dillan Johnson drew double-teams and created opportunities for his teammates to make plays.
The Hilltoppers’ defensive prowess was evident throughout the season, as they totaled 11 takeaways in their two games against Providence this year, including five in a 19-0 shutout in Week 2. These victories helped erase the sting of last year’s 24-14 playoff loss to Providence, which ended Joliet Catholic’s season prematurely.
“Last year’s loss was a bitter pill to swallow,” said Daniel Rouse. “It motivated us to work even harder this season. We had a chip on our shoulder, and we were determined to show what we were capable of.”
Providence tried to mount a comeback in the third quarter with a one-yard touchdown run by Jamari Tribett, but Patrick Durkin’s 37-yard field goal extended JCA’s lead to 31-14 entering the fourth quarter.
The Celtics made things interesting in the final frame, with Coleman scoring on a two-yard touchdown run and recovering the ensuing onside kick. However, the Hilltoppers quickly regained control, forcing a turnover on downs and intercepting two Providence passes in the final minutes to secure the victory.
Slepski finished the game with 185 passing yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions.
“Our defensive coordinator, Zach Dolph, and his staff have done an incredible job all season,” said Jaworski. “They’ve put together a unit that has been a major factor in our success. We’re relying on them to carry us one more step.“
With their victory over Providence, Joliet Catholic extended their state championship game appearance streak to 20 and will now face