Despite three lopsided losses to end the regular season the Riverside-Brookfield High School football team has qualified for the state playoffs. The “reward” for the 13th seeded Bulldogs in the IHSA Class 6A tournament will be a trip to East St. Louis to take on a team that has defeated its five Illinois regular season opponents by a combined score of 298-2.
East St. Louis has a record of 7-2, but its two losses have come against teams ranked second and fifth in the country by the website MaxPreps. They are the No. 4 seed in the Class 6A playoffs. The game kicks off at 3 p.m. on Oct. 30 in East St. Louis.
The team is led by wide receiver Luther Burden III who is rated as the sixth-best overall football recruit in the country by both Rivals.com and 247Sports.com. Burden had scholarships offers from both Alabama and Georgia but recently committed to play football next year for the University of Missouri.
On Oct. 22, the Bulldogs (5-4) closed out the regular season getting overpowered at home, losing 54-14 to Bishop McNamara. RBHS started slow, falling behind 20-0 in the first quarter. They couldn’t stop speedy sophomore running back Tony Phillips who ran for five touchdowns, three in the first quarter.
Phillips, a 5-6, 160 pound sophomore who has scholarship offers from Syracuse, Tennessee and Florida Atlantic, raced through and around the Bulldogs for 298 yards on 18 carries and had touchdown runs of two yards, 83 yards, 20 yards, 75 yards, and 50 yards.
“You can’t simulate 4.4 speed in practice,” said RBHS coach Brendan Curtin. “He’s just a talented runner.”
The Bulldog defense stiffened in the second quarter but Bishop McNamara (5-4) scored two more touchdowns. The first came with 3:30 left in the first half when Alan Smith picked off a pass by RBHS quarterback T.J. Sloan and returned it 54 yards for a touchdown.
The Fighting Irish made it 34-0 at the half when quarterback Brady Bertrand hit tight end Michael O’Connor for a 23-yard touchdown pass with just 24.9 seconds left.
At halftime Curtin challenged his team to focus on winning the third quarter. The Bulldogs responded and got their offense, which was held to just 40 yards in the first half, going, scoring 14 points to match Bishop McNamara’s output in the period.
Nathan Padilla gave the Bulldogs a spark on the first play of the second half when he made a big hit on O’Conner, forcing a fumble that Marcus Moody recovered for the Bulldogs.
On the very next play sophomore quarterback Diego Gutierrez got the Bulldogs on the scoreboard with a 28-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Iggy Bielobradek to make the score 34-7.
The Bulldogs defense rose up and stopped Bishop McNamara on the downs on the Fighting Irish’s next possession, but when Bishop McNamara next got the ball Phillips broke free for a 75 yard touchdown scamper to make the score 41-7.
Brady Vaia returned the ensuing kickoff to midfield. The Bulldogs offense, directed on this series by Sloan, promptly drove 50 yards and scored when Sloan connected with Vaia for a 16-yard touchdown pass to make the score 41-14.
“We showed a heck of a lot more spark and focus in the third quarter than we did in the first half,” Curtin said.
Injuries continued to mount for the Bulldogs as running back/defensive back Vinnie Maietta hurt his left shoulder in the first half and did not return to game. Vaia was shaken up in the fourth quarter.
The Bulldogs have been without wide receiver Matt Novak since he injured his knee in the second game of the season. Novak kicked a 49 yard game winning field goal as time expired to defeat Morton in the season opener. That field goal turned out to be the key to the Bulldogs making the playoffs.