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Shepard's Londell Lee makes a catch against Oak Lawn's Nick Anderson at Shepard High School in Palos Heights, Illinois, Friday, Oct. 21, 2011. | Michael DiNovo~For the Sun-Times Media
For the first time in 21 years, Shepard has advanced to the second round of the state football playoffs.
Not since the 1991 season, under then-coach Don Webster, has Shepard found itself in this position.
While coach Dominic Passolano has done a remarkable job in his four years of transforming the Astros into consistent winners, the previous three seasons were one-and-done playoff experiences.
The fourth try, however, proved to be the charm for Shepard, which downed Perspectives Charter-Calumet 23-7 in a Class 6A opener.
“Yeah, the whole school is excited,” Passolano said. “It’s like we’ve won a (college) bowl game. Not only is it the program’s first playoff win in 21 years, Friday will be the first time in 21 years that we’re going to be hosting a playoff game.”
And Shepard (7-3) will be hosting a familiar foe in Oak Forest (9-1) — the same Oak Forest that drubbed Shepard 45-21 in Palos Heights in Week 4.
The two schools, separated by approximately two miles, enjoy strong rivalries in other sports, which heightens expectations for Friday.
Passolano promises to tweak the game plan from the Astros’ first encounter with the Bengals.
“We’ve got to be able to run the ball,” Passolano said. “Even if we struggle running the ball early on, we can’t panic. Last game, we struggled with our running game and we quickly went to our passing game. We have to be more patient and keep working at establishing our running game.”
But even if Shepard’s running attack, led by Lorenzo Lashley and Devon Landfair, is clicking, it’s not as if the Astros will abandon their passing attack.
The combination of quarterback Jimmy McClinton and receiver Londell Lee is one of the area’s finest. But getting Landfair and Lashley to help move the chains is a top priority. With Lashley hobbled by a bad ankle, Landfair, a Mount Carmel transfer, received the bulk of the carries against Perspectives and rushed for 115 yards on 24 totes.
“Running the ball will set it up for Londell and Jimmy,” Passolano said. “We have to make Oak Forest honor our running game.”
Speaking of running the ball, few teams do it better than Oak Forest.
It doesn’t matter whom the Bengals have at quarterback running the show. Senior Tom Zale and junior Nick Ciufia have been rotating series for the better half of the season and equally have been productive.
Not even the loss of three-year starting fullback Matt Barry to a season-ending knee injury has slowed the Bengals’ ground game. Ben Santiago has stepped in and done an admirable job.
Oak Forest also has playmakers in Tyler Usterbowski, Kyle Hullinger and Corey Brent.
“We loaded up the box and we still didn’t stop their running game,” Passolano said of the teams’ first meeting this season. “They have blue-collar, tough kids. They like to run the ball and play smashmouth football. They have guys who can cut and make runs. Their quarterbacks hide behind the fullback and can make plays.”
Oak Forest is coming off a 29-0 win over Hinsdale South. While the Bengals offense has garnered much of the headlines, their defense, led by Brendan Powers and Blake Waller, has allowed just 102 points on the season.