As the seniors on the Wildkits’ playoff team finished an emotional final meeting at midfield after a 24-13 loss to Fremd in the first round of the Class 8A football playoffs, Evanston senior receiver James Brown remained upbeat about his class’ contribution. This was the first time Evanston’s football team made it to postseason play since 2003.

“I love my class,” Brown said. “It’s sad to say good-bye. But this is where something new starts. You just have to stay positive and can’t really think about the negative things. Hopefully in the future we can come back and have that good feeling again.

“It has been a long journey. Coming from freshman year to senior year – it just goes by so fast. I just take the pride and joy and enjoy it while I have it.”

Number 7 seed Evanston scored on its first possession of the game with an 11-play, 74-yard drive, capped by a 9-yard Brown touchdown catch with 6 minutes, 21 seconds left in the opening quarter.

However, the No. 10-seeded Vikings responded with a 10-play, 78-yard scoring drive led by senior running back Justin Wallace – who did essentially all of Fremd’s damage. Wallace carried the ball 43 times for 306 of Fremd’s 316 yards of total offense. His 11-yard run with 1:00 left in the first quarter led to a 7-7 tie.

The Kits senior quarterback Byron Dawkins (11-of-16 passing, 120 yards, two TDs, two interceptions) tossed a beautiful pass over the top of the Fremd secondary on the next play, and Brown wrestled it away from a Vikings’ cornerback in the end zone with 6:43 left in the first half. After a failed extra point attempt, Evanston led 13-7.

Wallace gave the Vikings the lead back, 14-13, with 47.6 seconds left in the first half after a 26-yard touchdown run.

In the third quarter, Wallace padded the Fremd’s lead again, 21-13, with 4:38 left after rushing the ball eight times for 86 yards. He scored on a three-yard plunge into the end zone. Freshman kicker Andrew Stark tacked on a 36-yard field goal with 8:37 left in the contest.

“They were a physical, strong football team,” Head Coach Mike Burzawa said. “I’m just proud of our kids’ effort. They’ve accomplished a lot this year. It just wasn’t meant to be tonight.”

Evanston’s return to the playoffs after a six-year hiatus didn’t go as planned, but it marked a successful turnaround from two years ago when it finished the season with a 1-8 record.

“It was great to see the improvement,” Coach Burzawa said. “It doesn’t take away the bad taste in your mouth from losing, however, especially when you felt you could have moved the ball on them. Tonight it just didn’t work out that way.

“Finishing second in the conference, winning our final three games and beating some schools we’ve really struggled against in the past – I couldn’t be more proud of these kids. They have a tremendous amount of heart. The seniors improved a tremendous amount from when they were freshman, so it’s tough to swallow. But I couldn’t ask for a more resilient group of young men.”

Senior linebacker Dillon Randolph acknowledged he will remember beating New Trier and Glenbrook South on the road, among other things, during the surprise season for him. 

The Evanston linebacker wanted to savor every single minute of a turnaround season before turning in his uniform for the last time.

That’s the sentiment echoed by most of the Wildkit seniors, who otherwise might have had difficulty seeing the big picture through the tears.

“Before the season I didn’t know what to expect,” Randolph said. “Last year there were people not playing who we thought would be playing and there were a lot of downs, not a lot of ups. This year there were a lot of ups, so I started to feel better.”