Members of the Wildkits varsity football team take the field for their first scrimmage on Thursday, Aug. 18 at Lazier Field. Credit: Richard Cahan

In his long coaching career, Mike Burzawa never felt better about giving away a game ball.

Somewhere, Alex Thomas was smiling down on Evanston’s football team.

The Wildkits rallied for a 53-50 overtime victory Friday night over Indian Trail of Wisconsin in a matchup of two teams (obviously) seeking a defense in their 2022 season debut at Lazier Field. The winners rode a career-best performance from quarterback Dylan Groff (4 touchdown runs, 2 touchdown passes) and junior running back Damarion Timberlake, who scored on a fourth-down 1-yard plunge to deliver the win in the OT period.

After the wild win – one of the highest-scoring games in school history – the Evanston head coach presented the game ball to members of Thomas’ family. The assistant football and track coach died of a heart attack on Aug. 13, near the end of preseason camp.

“Our kids had an emotionally difficult training camp,” admitted an exhausted Burzawa. “But talk about being resilient and keeping the faith. That’s what we did tonight. They gave every ounce of energy they had for Alex.

“That was really special.”

Wildkit quarterback Dylan Groff. Credit: Richard Cahan

Quarterback Groff hurled a 43-yard touchdown pass to senior Mac Mettee with 10 seconds remaining in regulation to tie the game at 47-all. But the Wildkits were flagged for a celebration penalty that pushed the extra point attempt back to the 32-yard line, and kicker Evan Siegel couldn’t convert.

“They [ETHS coaches] called a fade, so I just ran a fade and made the play,” said Mettee. “And Dylan made a play too. It was a crazy sequence. We finally converted one.

“After the way we played at the end of the game, and the overtime, I think we deserved to win. And I think our offense will be on point like that all year.”

Evanston’s defense finally did get a stop in overtime, when the Hawks settled for a 25-yard field goal by David Chon. Groff ran 3 straight times down to the 1 on Evanston’s possession, and the Wildkits prevailed when Timberlake barged into the end zone from there.

Groff carried 22 times for 142 yards and TD runs of 2, 31, 6 and 13 yards. He also completed 13 of 22 passes for 198 yards, including TD passes of 5 and 43 yards, both going to Mettee.

Timberlake proved the perfect complement to the hard-charging quarterback in the backfield as the junior piled up 136 yards on 24 carries and scored twice.

Wildkit Head Coach Mike Burzawa Credit: Richard Cahan

 “We got down 20-7 early, but you can’t panic,” Burzawa said. “Dylan is our general out there and he led us, and the big boys up front [linemen Elijah Hardigree, Gabe Rosen, Charlie Kremin, Cameron Wellington-Knibbs] moved the pile.

“It was a physical high school football game, and neither team quit. It just came down to who was the last man standing. Our kids played their hearts out.”

Indian Trail junior quarterback L.J. Dagen shredded the ETHS defense with 184 yards rushing on 27 tries, and scored on a couple of 2-yard runs. He also caught a TD pass, a 21-yarder on a reverse aerial from Sam Callow that staked the Hawks to a 27-20 halftime advantage.

Evanston scored on its first two possessions of the second half, on runs of 6 and 13 yards by Groff, and the seesaw encounter continued until Groff connected on a 5-yard TD pass to Mettee to tie the game at 41-41 with 8:06 left in the fourth quarter.

Indian Trail (1-1) responded with a 12-play, 72-yard drive that culminated in a 1-yard TD dive by Justin Lovelace (18 carries, 143 yards) with just 48 seconds left on the clock.

Evanston had no timeouts remaining, but Burzawa dug deep in his playbook for a relic – a hook and ladder play – that produced a Wildkit first down and put the hosts in range for Groff’s game-tying strike to Mettee.

“We hit on that hook and ladder and that really sparked us,” said the ETHS coach. “Then Mac caught a matchup that we liked, and we connected on the one that counted.”  

More coverage: ETHS football: Path to playoffs could start on the ground for Evanston

Editor’s note: This story has updated to correct the spelling of Damarion Timberlake’s first name.