Every year there are a few 6-3 teams qualifying for the Illinois High School Association state football playoffs that no one really wants to match up against in the first round.
Evanston showed Friday night at Lazier Field that the Wildkits could be one of those teams.
The Wildkits put it all together, punching playoff-bound Glenbrook South with a 21-point first quarter and scored a decisive 35-14 victory over the Titans in the regular season finale for both teams.
Coach Mike Burzawa’s squad improved their potential playoff resume while knocking the losers, now 7-2, down a few spots in the Class 8A seeding. Playoff matchups will be announced Saturday night by the Illinois High School Association and ETHS will likely be on the road to open the postseason.
All that’s in the future. The moment on Senior Night belonged to a group of players who started the season 1-2 but now have won five of their last six games. Kamau Ransom caught a pair of touchdown passes and Gio Milam-Pryor ran for two scores in a dominating performance on both sides of the ball.
“I am so damn proud of these players and these coaches,” said an emotional Burzawa. “As I look at our regular season, I give it a thumbs-up. But I’m not ready to stop yet!
“We knew we were in the playoffs, and we didn’t want to limp into the postseason [at a possible 5-4]. But tonight was all about living in the moment and sending these seniors out with a W at home. I’m proud of how we bounced back from that 1-2 start because it shows the character of these young men, the way they battled back, the way they stuck with it.
“GBS has had an amazing season, but tonight we were able to get them out of what they like to do [because of that big early lead]. We wanted to dictate tempo tonight, and we did. It all comes down to execution and fundamentals, and this was a great team victory.”
Junior quarterback Dylan Groff (10-of-15 passing for 223 yards) threw TD passes covering 75 yards (to Mark Canon Jr.) and 26 yards (to Ransom) and Milam-Pryor added a 1-yard TD run in a memorable first quarter, one of Evanston’s best opening efforts in a couple of decades against a quality foe.
A video of Ransom’s score was already up on the Internet by the time the game ended, exposing national audiences to the Wildkit senior wide receiver’s talents as he closes in on the single season school record for receiving touchdowns. He now has 11, within reach of Jody Ellis’ mark of 14 set in 2003 if the Kits can make a deep playoff run.
For good measure, Ransom added another highlight-film type grab in the second quarter from 34 yards out as the hosts built their lead to 28-0 right before the intermission.
Those early scores forced the run-heavy Titans out of their game plan, although curiously, they returned to the ground-and-pound Wing-T running game even with the game out of reach in the second half.
Evanston forced two turnovers and limited the visitors to 153 yards rushing. Quarterback Nic Swanson only completed 9-of-20 passes for 73 yards.
“To be honest, that’s the best first quarter that I’ve ever been a part of,” said Groff. “We were clicking in every way possible. The receivers got a lot of separation, got open and really made things easy for me.
“I think we’ve been clicking as a team ever since the New Trier game. We had a good week of practice, but I didn’t expect to be up 28 points on a 7-1 team. They’re no punks – they’re a good team. We’re going into the playoffs with a lot more confidence now.”
Burzawa almost couldn’t find the words to describe Ransom’s performance, especially considering the ETHS senior usually doesn’t get double digit targets like wideouts in other programs.
“Kamau made two amazing catches on those touchdowns,” Burzawa said. “He made two circus, dynamic catches where he really competed for the ball. On that first one he was able to maintain through all kinds of contact and he just continues to make explosive plays. He’s a leader in every sense of the word for us, who comes to work every day.
“He’s had a dynamite senior year, and he wants to keep it going.”
Like last week, Evanston scored on its first offensive play from scrimmage. Unlike the Maine South contest, the Kits were able to maintain that momentum even though they only scored once in the second half, when Milam-Pryor raced 59 yards for his team’s final score with 4 minutes, 33 seconds left in the game.
That dash gave him a total of 156 yards on 17 carries. South scored on a time-consuming drive against the ETHS backups to close out the game, as Matt Burda (23 carries for 88 yards) tallied on his second 1-yard TD plunge with just 43 seconds remaining.