The question from Bloom Township senior running back Justus Brantley was innocent enough.
“Is it any different?” he wondered about playing in the IHSA football playoffs.
Brantley and Blazing Trojans will find out soon enough.
Bloom Township, making its first appearance in the IHSA football playoffs since 1989, takes on Simeon at 7:30 p.m. Friday in a Class 8A first-round game at Gately Stadium in Chicago. And everybody in The Heights is buzzing about what coach Tony Palombi has called “a major-league game for us—a step up.”
Palombi, in his second stint coaching the Blazing Trojans, is grateful for the support of school administrators who trusted him to bring Bloom back to the playoff party. He noticed a difference in the atmosphere around town and at school on Monday.
“Oh, there’s been a lot of excitement,” he said. “The whole community is excited. It’s taken us 22 years to finally get back in there—in the playoffs. I’ve had people come up to me in the halls—people who’ve never said two words to me before—and say, ‘Good luck to you and good luck to the team.’
“The attention has been nice. The kids have been working hard since the end of last year, lifting weights, putting in the time. I’m happy for the kids that they get to experience all of this.”
All of this includes a bit of extra hoopla.
Palombi said there will be pep assemblies during the day Friday at Bloom and Bloom Trail to stoke the student body and honor the players on this year’s team for reaching a football milestone. Fan buses from both schools later will make the trek to Gately Stadium for the game.
With all the hype, Palombi has worked to keep the Blazing Trojans in check.
“It’s not just Gately or playing on turf—it’s all of it,” he said. “They’re excited. We’re facing a great opponent. It’s going to be a test of what kind of team we have. ‘Are we ready for this?’ At practice (on Monday night), nobody wanted to go home. They wanted to keep going.
“I had to call an end to it so they could get on the bus and go home. That’s a good thing. It’s a sign they want to play now. But my job is to get them to relax. We want them to peak on Friday.”
Bloom Football Journey Has Been Enjoyable
Brantley (5-11, 185) and Bloom have enjoyed many peaks already this season. The Blazing Trojans (6-3) have outscored their opponents 233-133 and enter the playoffs after notching two wins in their final three regular-season games.
Brantley, Southland Patch's Athlete of the Month for September, rushed for what is believed to be a school-record 387 yards and scored five touchdowns in a 43-15 victory over Rich South. He has run all season behind an offensive line anchored by five seniors—right tackle Jalen Thomas, right guard Alan Hall, center Brandon Rockett, left guard Colis McCloud and left tackle Antwan Bluster.
“We don’t have a 6-8, 300-pound kid—a superstar,” Palombi said. “We have average-size kids in that offensive line. They’re a strong group of kids. They were the ones to commit first, lifting every day, finding a coach and asking if they could get in an extra workout. Sometimes they don’t get noticed, but they’re a big reason why we’re here now.”
Two more reasons: Malcolm Hurt and Josiah Dailey.
Hurt, 6-2 and 215, shifted from defensive end to middle linebacker during the summer months. He leads the Blazing Trojans with 123 tackles. He also has four interceptions and has returned three kickoffs, one for a touchdown. He brings the athleticism and postseason experience of a basketball player to the football field.
Hurt played on Bloom Township’s fourth-place finishing Class 4A basketball team last winter.
“He’s got really good lateral movement,” Palombi said. “He’s in on almost every play. If he’s not making the tackle, he’s there to help out. He’s caused a couple of fumbles and recovered two.”
Dailey, 6-2 and 185, is a four-year starter and run-pass stopper for the Blazing Trojans. He has made 54 tackles and intercepted five passes while playing safety.
“For us, it’s a reverse in terms of his role,” Palombi said. “He’s run-first, then he drops back and defends the pass as well. He recovered a fumble and returned it for a touchdown against Rich Central (Bloom won 21-0 to clinch a playoff berth). He’s also returned an interception for a TD. So, he can score for us on defense.”
The Blazing Trojans will need all their weapons to withstand an assault from Simeon (7-1), the champion of the Chicago Public Schools Illini (Red Bird) Conference. The Wolverines’ only loss was a 20-0 setback to Loyola Academy in the season-opener on Aug. 25.
Loyola placed second in Class 8A last season and is considered one of the favorites to win it all this year. Simeon is looking to become the Public League’s first state champion.
“Their history is impressive,” Palombi said. “They’re one of the city powerhouses. They’re athletic. They’re big. And they’re fast. They’re everything you want in a football team. We exchanged films. You can see on the films how well-coached they are just by how they go about their business.
“It’s going to be a major-league game for us—a step up. But that’s what you’d expect. It’s the playoffs. Everybody wants to win the state championship. But you’ve got to win the first-round game to do that.”