Champions die hard.

Maine South showed Evanston’s players and fans at rain-soaked Wilson Field in Park Ridge Friday night just what it takes to become — and remain — a champion for 15 straight years.

Sean McNulty’s 33-yard field goal with 1.2 seconds remaining denied the Wildkits their first Central Suburban League South division title since 1997 as the Hawks scored 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter and escaped with a 34-31 victory.

Trailing by 14 points at the beginning of the final period, the Hawks were unstoppable over the last 10 minutes and repeated as division champs with their 75th straight victory in league play dating back to the 2000 season.

A Tray Banks fumble with 1 minute, 34 seconds remaining set up McNulty’s game-winning boot. But Banks’ miscue was part of what turned out to be a championship effort by both teams, something that’s rare at the high school level in the same game.

Banks was straining for extra yardage when he coughed up the ball to South defensive back Ryan Gibbons. He repeatedly added big yards after the catch with sheer effort, grabbing 9 passes for 137 yards and a touchdown. Banks matched the intensity shown by senior teammate Micquel Roseman, who broke tackles left and right and finished with 126 yards rushing on 25 tries and two TDs.

Both Maine South (7-2 overall) and Evanston (6-3) will await word now on where the Illinois High School Association will send them for postseason play. The state pairings will be announced Saturday night.

This is a loss, however, that will be difficult for the Wildkits to put behind them after twice losing double digit leads.

“We played our tails off. I don’t know why it didn’t happen for us tonight,” said a disappointed ETHS head coach, Mike Burzawa. “As a team we just didn’t finish the fourth quarter the way we wanted to. Maine South beat us in all phases of the game in the fourth quarter. It was a great effort — I’m very proud of our players — and there are no excuses. Maine South just found a way to finish.”

The Hawks piled up 482 yards of total offense led by running back Fotis Kokosioulis (33 carries, 193 yards, 1TD) and quarterback Brian Collis (23-of-35 passing for 279 yards and 3 TDs). The home team trailed 31-17 when Evanston QB Matt Little (15-of-30, 220 yards, 2 TDs) found Banks for a 3-yard touchdown pass to cap a 57-yard scoring drive on the first play of the final period.

Maine South responded with an 80-yard scoring march in 11 plays, and after coming up short and turning the ball over on their next possession, pulled into a 31-31 tie on a 31-yard scoring pitch from Collis to Matt Holbrook with 1:47 remaining in regulation.

The Wildkits came out throwing from their own 20, instead of attempting to run out the regulation clock, and turned the ball over on second down to set up  the game-winning kick by McNulty.

“I don’t think you sit on the ball in that situation and try to play for overtime,” Burzawa pointed out. “We played to win.”