Joliet went 4-4 in 2019 and just missed out on the 8-Man football state playoffs. Those four losses were all to playoff teams in one-possession games and came by a combined 17 points. That heartbreak pushed the J-Hawks throughout the offseason.
“They left a bad taste in our mouths last year and felt like they took something from us, so we really want it bad. Really want it bad," senior fullback and linebacker Wyatt Anderson said. "On a scale of 1-10, it’s probably like a 15.”
“We really became a team through those summer practices and different team-building activities throughout the summer, so I feel like this year we’re more of a team and we’ll be able to push through when those single-digit games come in," said senior offensive and defensive lineman Kelly Lind said.
Joliet hasn’t had to worry about a close game yet, though, as the J-Hawks are 4-0 with 20 points being their smallest margin of victory. After sitting at home during last year’s postseason, Joliet is making plans to play deep in this year’s playoffs.
“We have the seniors decide on our motto, and 'Revenge Tour', 'Revenge Season', it stuck out. That’s been our driving force. Being one or two plays away from basically being 8-0 last season definitely helped us for this season," Joliet head coach George Warburton said. "A lot of those mistakes were our mistakes, we made them. We’re learning from them and I think that’s just another asset of having those senior leaders that understand we have to practice and make perfect so those mistakes don’t happen again.”
If the J-Hawks are to go deep in the playoffs, they’ll need starting quarterback Hayden Ward to return to full healthy. Ward has been out since dislocating his right elbow against Ennis on Sept. 11.
“Never thought I’d be sitting on the sidelines. This summer when we’re working out I never thought that would happen, but then one play, now I’m out," Ward said. "I heard it and I felt it. I was getting ready to stand back up and the Ennis dude was like, ‘Bro, I think you broke your arm.’ I looked down and was like, ‘Oh, yeah. Doesn’t look right to me.’ I just kind of sat there, trainer came out, put the splint on.”
“Having Hayden go down, captain, that’s unfortunate, but next man up. That’s been a mentality for us the last few seasons, so to have Ty Cooke come in and show composure for a sophomore and his first throw be a dime, we’re lucky to have him. He’s been working like he’s the starter from Week 1," Warburton said.
A conference championship hangs in the balance for Joliet. The J-Hawks visit Park City on Friday night with the winner grabbing the 8-Man South title.
“We’re going to continue to grind. We’re taking one step at a time to climb this tall mountain. We’re taking each game one game at a time," Warburton said. "Right now we're going to reload, we're going to watch film and we're going to get better. We're going to continue to work and hope for the best when we go to Park City."
Kickoff between the Panthers and J-Hawks is slated for 7 p.m. Friday.