Evanston’s football team almost pulled off a last-second miracle Friday night in New Lenox.
But Lincoln-Way Central’s Joe Keller had other ideas.
The Lincoln-Way linebacker intercepted a PAT pass with 10 seconds left on the clock and frustrated Evanston’s bid for a happy ending to a COVID-19 plagued season, allowing the Knights to escape with a 24-22 victory.
The frantic finish saw both teams score touchdowns in the final 49 seconds of play after neither had scored in the second half up to that point. In the end, it was another gut-wrenching loss for the Wildkits, who finished the abbreviated season with a 3-3 won-loss record that included three losses by a total of 12 points.
COVID-19 isn’t the only reason veteran ETHS head coach Mike Burzawa won’t forget this strange season. The character and commitment of the coaching staff and players loomed large in Coach Burzawa’s mind after another close loss.
Junior quarterback Sean Cruz found senior wide receiver Jeremiah Lasley in the back of the end zone for a 22-yard touchdown pass with only 10 seconds left on the clock, but his PAT pass into the flat was picked off by Keller.
That ending will likely prevent Lincoln-Way Central head coach Jeremy Cordell from second-guessing his decision to try a squib kick following what turned out to be his team’s game-winning score, a 10-yard pass from Turner Doran to Charlie Graefen on 4th down with 49 seconds left.
Evanston had burned all of its timeouts trying to preserve the clock on that Knights’ drive, but the failed squib kick was recovered by the Kits at their own 40. The visitors had just enough time left for Cruz to march them all the way to paydirt, but couldn’t quite seal the deal thanks to Keller.
“We all know we should have won that football game,” Coach Burzawa told a somber group of Wildkits in the post-game huddle. “That’s why it hurts so much. We had three tough losses this year go right down to the last play of the game. It didn’t happen for us, and I don’t know why it didn’t happen. But I DO know you’re a great football team.
“These seniors are ultimate warriors, one of the best classes I’ve ever coached. And our entire coaching staff are heroes, in my opinion. I couldn’t be more proud because every one of them has done a phenomenal job this year.”
Leading rusher Daeshawn Hemphill (elbow) and standout linebacker Connor Groff (knee) both missed their final games as seniors due to injuries, but overcoming adversity is nothing new for the Class of 2021 – and they almost did it again.
“These kids came out and battled, week in and week out,” Coach Burzawa pointed out. “They have such great character and they’re outstanding young men who never quit. It was a great year, and I’m not looking at our 3-3 record when I say that. To me, these young men are all champions. It didn’t go our way at the end tonight, but the love and caring they showed for each other, and the brotherhood they shared means everything else went our way.”
A momentum switch at the end of the first half likely cost ETHS the victory, although there was enough time to regroup. After surrendering a TD on the opening drive of the game, Evanston countered with a one-yard TD run by Sebastian Cheeks and a three-yard TD pass from sophomore Dylan Groff to Mark Canon Jr.
The visitors had a chance to pull away even more, but a drive stalled at the Lincoln-Way 15 when Groff’s fourth-down pass was broken up.
Cheeks’ defensive hustle did force Lincoln-Way quarterback Turner Doran into an intentional grounding penalty from his own end zone, resulting in a subsequent safety, but the Wildkit lead still could have been greater than the 16-10 margin with 3:35 left in the first half.
Central burned the Kits with a 38-yard screen pass for a score from Doran (19-of-32 for 203 yards, two TDs) to Ethan Rossow down the right sideline, and the PAT kick found Evanston down 17-16 at the half instead of up by two scores.
“That change in momentum at the end of the half really hurt us,” Coach Burzawa said. “We came out just wanted to withstand them and the wind and tried to win the game in the fourth quarter. We were in scoring position a lot tonight, and we weren’t able to score.
“We had a tremendous effort tonight. Everyone did his very best, and that’s all I can ask.”
Evanston’s best chance to regain the lead came at the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth quarter, when the Wildkits began a drive at their own 20 and maneuvered inside the Lincoln-Way 15. But that’s where the drive died, and junior Jason Nelson misfired on a 35-yard field goal attempt to keep Lincoln-Way on top 17-16.
Cruz completed 14-of-22 passes for 154 yards and a touchdown, while Groff, who figures to challenge the incumbent for the starting job next year, connected on 9-of-12 for 65 yards and a score.