Mike Burzawa was close to speechless after Evanston’s loss at Plainfield North Saturday night.

The reason was simple – the Evanston Township High School head coach didn’t expect to be addressing his football team about an end-of-the-season defeat so soon.

The Wildkits faltered Oct. 30 in the second half in their bid for their first playoff victory since 2003 and dropped a 23-13 decision to Plainfield North in the opening round of the Class 8A Illinois High School Association state playoffs. Costly penalties – eight of them, for a total of 63 yards, including three roughing-the-quarterback penalties – and a lack of execution on offense led to a final season record of 6-4.

Plainfield North, the No. 11 seed in the field, improved to 8-2 and will face Central Suburban League South division champion Maine South in the second round.

“It shouldn’t have ended tonight,” Burzawa told a somber group of players in the last postgame huddle of the 2021 campaign. “We all know we should be walking out of here with a ‘W.’ Our discipline faltered tonight and that really hurt us. I just wasn’t ready to make this end-of-the-season speech tonight.

“We talked about playing a clean football game tonight, but we had a lot of penalties. Some of them boggled my mind, but we never blame the officials here. We just had some breakdowns, and it seemed like every time we were crawling back into the game, we saw flags on the field. All of those penalties were really momentum shifters.”

Trailing 14-7 at halftime, the visitors closed to within 14-13 on a 25-yard touchdown run by senior Gio Milam-Pryor on their first drive of the second half. But the Wildkits mustered almost nothing on offense after that, and totaled just 36 yards passing to go with 57 rushing over the last two periods.

Plainfield North wasn’t exactly an offensive juggernaut, either. Faced with an ETHS defense that was paced by senior linebacker Angelo Arnold (7 solo tackles, 2 assists), the Tigers did achieve offensive balance with 145 yards on the ground and 133 through the air. Running back Jared Gumila had TD runs of 4 and 3 yards but needed 30 carries to accumulate his 109 yards rushing.

The Wildkits had to bounce back from the adversity of a 1-2 start to the season just to make the Class 8A playoff field this fall, and they faced more adversity when they found out last Wednesday that starting quarterback Dylan Groff was diagnosed with mononucleosis and would be out indefinitely.

Seldom-used junior classmate Hank Liss, who had only played for a half-dozen snaps on offense all year, stepped in Saturday and completed 17-of-29 passes for 142 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He also rushed for 32 yards on 8 attempts.

Liss tossed a 25-yard TD pass to Kamau Ransom on Evanston’s second possession of the game for what turned out to be the team’s last lead of the season. The host Tigers responded with scoring drives covering 50 and 76 yards and owned the lead at halftime thanks to Gumila’s 4-yard run and a 34-yard scoring pass from Harrison Klein to Sean Schlasner.

It wasn’t the first big moment for Liss, also a promising baseball pitcher, in his athletic career at ETHS. He also pitched the regional tournament opener last spring as a sophomore, and Burzawa knew the moment wouldn’t be too big for Liss.

“I’m very, very proud of Hank Liss,” said the ETHS coach. “He came out there with no fear in him and battled and played hard. We didn’t have to play perfect tonight, even without Dylan, but we just put ourselves in too many bad situations, and they all added up.”

“Every time we hit a good play, Plainfield switched things up on us on defense,” Liss said. “The run game did start to work in the second half for us. Their linebackers were good, but this is definitely a team we should’ve beat. We left it all out on the field. We tried our best.

“When I found out Wednesday that Dylan couldn’t play, it really took me by surprise.  But it was a next-man-up situation and that’s when you’ve got to do the job.  We went to a lot of quick passes tonight because we wanted to get our receivers in one-on-one situations against their defense and I thought the wide receivers did a great job.

“I did the best I could.”

Down 21-13 in the early minutes of the fourth quarter, Evanston gambled on a fourth-down try at midfield and Liss’ pass was batted at the line of scrimmage and intercepted by North’s Daniel Nicola. But the Tigers couldn’t punch the ball in on four attempts from the 6-yard line, as linebacker Elijah Salamon was in on all four stops for the visitors, including a fourth-and-1 try by Gumila.

But North’s defense swarmed all over Milam-Pryor for a safety that pushed the Tigers’ lead to two possessions and accounted for the final 23-13 margin.