Gopher recruit Jack Simmons leads Carmel

Rain did not stop a record overflow crowd of more than 7,000 fans at the 3,000-seat capacity McCulloch Stadium from watching the Mundelein (IL) Carmel–Joliet (IL) Catholic Academy game Friday night. The rain hampered Carmel's passing attack, but it did not stop the impact that Gopher recruit 6-6 tight end/linebacker Jack Simmons has on the football field. I had a chance to watch Simmons and the Corsairs, ranked number one in the state by the Chicago Tribune and #19 nationally by the USA Today.

I was not disappointed, despite the weather, as Carmel defeated previously unbeaten Hilltoppers 41-14 in their last regular season game of the year.

The contest matching two 8-0 teams, not only drew a record crowd, but representatives from three Chicago papers, three Chicago television stations and a broadcast from the Football Network. The win gave Carmel its first East Suburban Catholic Conference title.


Carmel, which is using the slogan "Unfinished Business," this season has had little success against Joliet, winning just one of 22 previous meetings and their last win was in 1972.


Carmel got off to a slow start as they gained just three yards in their first two possessions. Joliet used a ball-control offense to jump to a 7-0 lead. Carmel QB Mark Venegoni scored on a 48-yard run with 10:12 left in the second quarter to tie the score. Venegoni finished the game with 97 yards on four carries.


The Carmel defense stopped Joliet on fourth down on their next possession. Junior running back Darren Davis broke through the middle to go 74 yards untouched on the next play top give Carmel a 14-7 lead with 2:49 left in the second quarter.


Joliet tried a fake punt at the Carmel 45 in the closing minute of the second half, but Carmel's defense came up big to stop the play with no gain. Venegoni connected with Jason Kwaisigroch on a 14-yard touchdown pass on a fake field goal with seven seconds in the half.


Sophomore Bill McKeon of Joliet scored his second touchdown on the day on a 1-yard run to cut the lead to 21-14 with 8:29 left in the third quarter. McKeon moved to quarterback from running back when Joliet's standout signal caller Brad Bourg suffered a broken ankle early in the season.


However, that was as close as the Hilltoppers would get as Carmel would score three straight touchdowns.


Venegoni hit Chris Miller for a 26-yard touchdown pass with 5:05 left in the third quarter. Senior fullback Jon Popovitch, who finished with 95 yards on 16 carries, scored on a 10-yard run. Junior running back Steve Hironimus finished the scoring with a 65-yard run.


Simmons did not catch a pass as the Carmel relied on their triple-option offense to rush for more than 400 yards in the rain. However, his blocking was crucial as the Corsairs (which is a Pirate, I found out) dominated the clock with their time-consuming drives.


Simmons was defended by Joliet's all-state defensive back Bobby Buchanan throughout the game. Buchanan, the younger brother of Atlanta Falcon defensive back Ray Buchanan has committed to Illinois. However, Buchanan was clearly frustrated with the blocking of Simmons, who would routinely hold onto his blocks 20 yards down the field on Carmel runs.


Simmons entered the game with a team-high 21 catches for 443 yards and two touchdowns. He carried the ball twice for 46 yards and one touchdown.


Simmons was the lone two-way starter for the Corsairs. He entered the game with seven solo tackles and 20 assists. He had one tackle for loss and a team-high three interceptions.


Simmons became the fourth verbal commitment for the Gopher football team, picking Minnesota over Northwestern, Illinois and Michigan State in August. Simmons is a four-year varsity starter who was named first-team all-area in 2002. He is an excellent athlete who played four different positions as a junior. His father, Terry, is a former Gopher who played for Minnesota from 1977-79 as a punter and tight end. 


Jack Simmons is expected to project as a tight end at the collegiate level. He was also considering Big Ten rivals Northwestern, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Illinois.


Simmons is a versatile player, which is one of his strengths, according to his high school coach Andy Bitto.


"Jack catches, blocks, tackles, makes interceptions and blocks punts. He's a difference-maker."


Simmons is ranked 14th among the Chicago Tribune's Top 100 recruits. He is already a full academic qualifier with a 3.4 GPA and an ACT score of 25.


This year's Carmel squad is considered the best team in school history as they return 14 starters from the Class 6A quarterfinalist. They also welcome back QB Mark Venegoni and an offensive line dubbed "The Great Wall of Carmel." Their offensive line features great size, with Drew Cairo-Gross (6-3, 293), Dan Osterhout (6-3, 276) and Luke Krombach (6-3, 255).


Carmel finished 13-1 last season. Last year, Mount Carmel knocked off top-ranked Carmel 28-21 in the state quarterfinals on its way to a fourth state title in five years. Carmel had defeated Mt. Carmel in the regular season 24-21.


Carmel went into the season ranked No. 1 in Class 6A by the Associated Press, perhaps the most competitive class in the state. Rival Mount Carmel, who knocked Carmel out of postseason play, is the defending Class 6A champion, its 10th championship overall, to tie an Illinois High School record. They were ranked third in the preseason poll, but finished just 5-4 in the regular season.


New Lenox (IL) Providence Catholic, who won consecutive state championships, moved up a Class to 6A. They had not lost in 28 games before the season and returns 10 starters to a team that defeated Pontiac 42-0 in the Class 5A title game and were ranked #2 in the preseason poll. They finished 7-2.

Gopher Illustrated Top Stories