One year ago, Garrett Wolfe was a second-string cornerback who felt fortunate to carry the ball four times for Holy Cross.
Who would expect Wolfe to have a career year as the 5-foot-7-inch, 170-pound junior rushed for 2,270 yards, scored 32 touchdowns and became a symbol of Holy Cross' football revival?Thanks to Wolfe, Holy Cross (11-2) had its best season in the program's 40-year history. Freshman players went bare-chested to the varsity games with "Wolfe" painted across their chests. Students made signs in school that proclaimed: "Who Let The Wolfe Out?"
"It was like the students, faculty, everybody at school had a symbol to bring them together," said Crusader coach Joe DiCanio. "He was a major surprise, and I had no idea he would be such an impact player. Garrett Wolfe put us back on the map."
Brian Mitchell was an unassuming running back who gained about 800 yards and scored seven touchdowns last year for a Glenbard North program seemingly stuck in the middle of the DuPage Valley Conference.
All of a sudden, Mitchell has a breakout year with nearly 1,600 yards rushing and 26 touchdowns while leading the Panthers to the Class 6A title game Saturday against Maine South.
Wolfe and Mitchell head up the Tribune's 2000 All-State Football Team in a year of surprises.
How about second-team All-State quarterback Tim Brasic of Riverside-Brookfield? The junior was a wide receiver last season, and over the summer, Bulldogs coach Otto Zeman concocted this wild passing scheme with five receivers, no backs and Brasic handling the shotgun snaps.
"No one knew I was going to play quarterback," said Brasic, a natural leader who has started at point guard for R-B since his freshman year. "Everybody around here kept saying we'd be lousy as usual."
Instead, Brasic passed for nearly 3,200 yards and 35 touchdowns and ran for 852 yards and seven more TDs in leading R-B to the 4A quarterfinals and its best season ever.
All-State offensive lineman Jim Magiera represents another pleasant surprise since his Maine South team has unexpectedly advanced to the title game. Almost everyone had Naperville Central and Lincoln-Way penciled in for the 6A final.
The surprises continue on the defensive side, beginning with 6-foot-8-inch, 245-pound New Trier defensive end Shea Fitzgerald.
Nobody, not the most sophisticated talent scouting services, prep football junkies and even the Trevians coaching staff realized the talent within this late-blooming senior.
After registering 84 tackles and 11 sacks while keying New Trier's eight-game winning streak, Fitzgerald began attracting interest from Wisconsin, Illinois and Northern Illinois.
Then, there's the extraordinary tale of Downers Grove North's Kyle Kleckner. Once last year's prime-time players such as quarterback Joe Riner and receiver Orlando Diaz graduated, it appeared the Trojans fortunes rested with a converted receiver playing QB.
All Kleckner did was accumulate 2,630 all-purpose yards and account for 36 touchdowns by running, passing and catching the ball, return kickoffs and punts and intercept two passes as a defensive back.
"He is a dynamic three-sport athlete who should be player of the year in Illinois because of his versatility," said Downers North coach Pete Ventrelli. "He never leaves the field."
Which brings us to Springfield's Ulexis Williams, Kleckner's partner in the All-State secondary. This 6-0, 180-pound marvel literally played every minute of every game this season, taking turns at running back and receiver on offense, cornerback and free safety on defense, returning punts and kickoffs and also kicking field goals, PATs and averaging more than 38 yards a punt.
The All-State surprises aren't limited to offense and defense. When it comes to the kicking game, folks in Lockport thought they'd never see another Nick Setta, currently at Notre Dame.
Well, along comes Pat O'Callaghan to convert field goals from 52, 51 and 50 yards and just miss from 58.
Wolfe wants to make sure he doesn't become the 2001 version of Abe Jones, a second-team, All-State running back from Rolling Meadows who couldn't shake a variety of anti-Abe defenses this season.
"I'm going to put on 15 or 20 pounds, hit the weights hard, work the hip sled, run the ropes for my footwork and run up a hill with a parachute," Wolfe said. "My running backs coach, Paul Pichillo, is going to run with me--without the parachute. I'm doing these drills [former Buffalo Bills star] Don Beebe used to cut down my 40-yard dash time from 4.38 seconds to a 4.3.
"When we lost to Pontiac in the quarterfinals, they had a defense designed to stop me by using their team speed to fill the running lanes. That's a game where, if I was stronger, I could've run inside, broken some tackles and then taken off."
Maybe Wolfe should consult Mitchell, whose strenuous off-season conditioning program produced the kinds of results that turned ex-Naperville Central running back Ryan Clifford from an average player into a record-breaking All-Stater.
After hearing about Clifford's dramatic turnaround thanks to help from a personal trainer at a gym in Aurora, Mitchell began working out with Tim Graft of Joliet College. He would practice with his teammates in the relentless August sun from 9 a.m.-noon and 1-3 p.m. and then push himself ever harder with Graft from 4:30-6:30 p.m.
"I was astonished at the results," said Mitchell, who cut his 40-yard dash time from 4.9 seconds to 4.45. "During preseason training camp, I couldn't believe I was able to run so fast."
After a 70-yard TD run against West Chicago and an 80-yarder against Naperville North, Mitchell came to this realization: "Nobody is going to be able to catch me."
Joining Wolfe and Mitchell as "untouchables" are Joliet Catholic junior J.R. Zwierzynski and Harrisburg breakaway threat Braden Jones. Zwierzynski has led the Hilltoppers to the threshold of their ninth state championship rushing for 1,901 yards and scoring 31 touchdowns. Jones is averaging a whopping 43.4 yards per catch, second-best in state history behind David Jackson, who averaged 44.5 for Corliss in 1986. Jones is 6-3, 215 and ran in Harrisburg's relay teams, which placed at the state track meet last spring.
"Braden Jones has come on like gangbusters," said Joliet recruiting analyst Chris Pool. "He has narrowed his college choices to pretty much Northwestern and Notre Dame, although Stanford and Illinois are still in there. I guess maybe he wanted to stay closer to home, but he turned down offers from Florida State, Texas and Clemson."
Then again, why would that be so surprising in this, the year of the unexpected.