Feeling like champs after the 31-0 victory, the Wildkits celebrate on the field. The game ended the team’s four-game losing streak. Credit: Saul Lieberman

You couldn’t blame Dylan Groff if his first-ever unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was a little more dramatic than simply not handing the football to a referee after scoring a touchdown against Niles West.

Maybe an emphatic spike of the football. Or a heave into the stands. Or a celebration dance with his offensive line to signal the end of a frustrating month of football for the Evanston quarterback and his teammates.

“I’ve never had an unsportsmanlike conduct and I felt a little bad about that,” Groff said. “In the huddle right before that play, Demarion Timberlake told me I’d better take it to the [effing] house [end zone] – and I was pretty excited when I did it! It just felt so good to finally get up on another team like that after all the close losses we’ve had.”

“I feel like now we’re starting to get back to what we know we wanted to be as a team at the start of the season. We’re starting to execute like we planned to at the start of the year.”

Quarterback Dylan Groff scores in the second quarter. He also threw three touchdown passes. Credit: Saul Lieberman

Groff threw for three touchdowns and ran for another Friday night as the Wildkits ended a four-game losing skid and celebrated Homecoming with a 31-0 blanking of Niles West in a Central Suburban League South division matchup at Lazier Field.

“We played a complete game tonight,” said Evanston head coach Mike Burzawa. “It felt good to put all three phases of the game [offense, defense, special teams] together tonight.

“Tonight our kids were hungry. We’re like a wounded animal right now, and it’s been so difficult from all of those close losses we’ve had. I’m most proud of the character and the resilience that they’ve all shown.

“So far the season has been a sour taste and it’s not easy on anybody. The biggest thing we had to do was grow and keep learning, keep grinding. This is where you find out about your toughness, and it’s good to get that winning feeling back.”

Boaz Lieberman catches a pass for an 18-yard touchdown for the first score. Credit: Saul Lieberman

“It was tough not to get that first play,” said Groff, “but we knew a lot of things were there for us. We had a good game plan.”

Evanston’s defense allowed Niles West to cross midfield just a total of three times and limited the Wolves to a mere five first downs as the Kits improved to 2-4 overall and 1-1 in league play. Niles West has an identical record following Evanston’s pitch of a complete game shutout.

Wide receiver Preston Brown scores on a 54-yard pass play in the third quarter. Credit: Saul Lieberman

Groff completed 13-of-15 passes for 155 yards, including TD tosses to Boaz Lieberman (18 yards), Mac Mettee (7 yards) and Preston Brown (54 yards). His 9-yard scoring run in the second quarter boosted Evanston’s lead to 17-0 and was well worth the 15-yard penalty he drew from an unsympathetic official when the ETHS senior didn’t deliver the football to him right away and instead carried it back to the sidelines.

After missing out on a “home run” flea flicker pass on the first play of the game that could have been a score, the Wildkits settled for simply biting off whatever chunks of yardage they could against a West defense that is designed to prevent big plays.

Groff said, “We’ve fallen short this past month – we should have won at least a couple of those games – and it was tough because we were fighting right to the end, but we couldn’t finish. I’ve never been through a string of losses like that.”

So did the Evanston defense, led by tackle Flo Feldman (four solo tackles, two assists), Caleb Lieberman (seven solos, two assists) and Yohanness Jean-Francois (six solos, three assists).

The Wildkit defense was nearly perfect, giving up just 126 yards. Caleb Lieberman (42) and many teammates stop Niles West. Credit: Saul Lieberman

They limited the Wolves to 59 yards rushing and 67 passing, and West’s only real threat – a screen pass from John Bae to wide receiver Jason Fowler that would have moved the ball inside the ETHS 10 – was called back due to a holding penalty just before halftime.

“Tonight we stayed disciplined for the most part. We gang-tackled and sprinted hard to the ball on every play,” said tackle Feldman, who recorded a quarterback sack late in the contest. “We just kept our energy up because we wanted to put up that zero [shutout].

“We’ve been through a lot this year, but we’ve stayed together and fought for a good win like this tonight. Hopefully now we’ll never look back. We’ll take it one step at a time, one game at a time and keep this energy up and make it to the [state] playoffs. We know we’re so close to where we want to be as a team, and we have enough guts and fight in us not to let up no matter what happens.”

Evanston got a Homecoming gift early in the contest when quarterback Bae, who doubles as the punter, booted the ball into the backside of one of his offensive lineman to set the Wildkits up on the Niles West 20. Four plays later, Boaz Lieberman caught a short pass and broke a tackle for the first touchdown of the game.

Evan Siegel (7) kicks a 38-yard field goal to give the Wildkits a 10-0 lead. Credit: Saul Lieberman

The hosts marched 84 yards on their next possession, which ended with a 38-yard field goal by Evan Siegel on the second play of the second quarter. Good field position then set up that 32-yard TD burst by Groff for a 17-0 halftime advantage.

“Dylan didn’t spike the ball and I don’t know why that was a penalty,” said Burzawa. “He played a great game tonight and he’s a great leader who works as hard as anybody.

“We told the kids that our playoffs started this week and now we’re on to the final one-third of the season. We’re not finished yet.”

It was a night of cheering from Wildkit fans at the homecoming game. Credit: Saul Lieberman

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