Can unbeaten, state-ranked Pekin win a football state title? Let's look at the path
The Pekin football team just finished its first unbeaten regular season in two decades, but this team's lasting legacy will be determined in the playoffs.
This is Pekin's fourth 9-0 regular season since the playoffs started back in 1974. The school's previous 9-0 squads — each under coach Dale Patton — came in 1991, 1995 and 2001, when the Dragons won a Mid-State 9 Conference championship and two Mid-State 6 titles. Pekin joined the Mid-Illini Conference in 2006.
The Dragons this season are ranked No. 7 statewide by The Associated Press, are the unbeaten Mid-Illini champions, and now enter the 32-team Class 7A bracket as the No. 3 overall seed.
As the lone unbeaten team in the Peoria area — and its largest by enrollment — here is a look at Pekin's possible path through the Class 7A playoffs (Hint: the path involves a lot of teams from Chicagoland).
Opponent: Plainfield Central (5-4)
The Dragons enter the playoffs averaging 44.1 points per game against 15.4 allowed — the third-best points differential in the 7A field. So, few Pekin teams have been as dominant as this one, led by the dynamic running back tandem of Kanye Tyler and Tanner Sprecher and the quarterback-receiver tandem of Scotty Jordan and Bo Benassi.
Pekin is the heavy favorite over the runner-up from the Southwest Prairie-East Conference, which is 0-3 against teams with a winning record.
Who's going to win?We pick IHSA first-round playoff football games for Peoria-area schools
A victory in this game would send Pekin to the quarterfinals for just the second time in school history, joining Patton's team from 1988.
But it won't be easy.
Pekin could get a home rematch here with Hononegah, which beat the Dragons 31-28 at this level last season. If Normal Community of the Big 12 gets past Hononegah of the NIC-10, it would host the Dragons in Round 2.
This is when it gets to big-time playoff football for the Dragons, who likely will face a state-ranked opponent in No. 7 Wheaton North, runner-up of the DuKane Conference, or No. 9 Lake Zurich, champion of the North Suburban.
But with this offense — and a defense that is among the best in the state — look for the Dragons to hold their own against one of the state's premier programs.
If Pekin is playing in this round, it has done something no other Dragons football team before: won a state quarterfinal game. And they will have earned it.
Another state-ranked team likely awaits in the semifinals. No. 2 seed Hersey is the No. 2-ranked champion of the Mid-Suburban East — and could match up here with Pekin.
But watch for Batavia of the DuKane Conference. The No. 9-ranked Bulldogs are tested, with two losses by a combined four points to a pair of 8-1 teams — and a 31-16 loss to Class 8A No. 2 Frankfort Lincoln-Way East.
'She's 1-for-1 on tackles:'Kicker's rare hit, Pekin's elite offense ignite large crowd
A familiar refrain from Peoria-area football programs: If you want to win a state championship, you must go through a Catholic power from Chicago.
No different for Pekin in 2022.
Awaiting the Dragons in a potential Thanksgiving weekend game in Champaign likely would be one of the state's most iconic programs: Chicago Mount Carmel. The unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Caravan has been challenged only twice this season — by Brother Rice and 8A No. 1 Wilmette Loyola Academy. The Caravan is seeking its 14th state championship, second all-time behind only Joliet Catholic's 15.