By Jon DePaolis
For nearly three quarters, the Marist football team went toe to toe with the No. 1-ranked team in the state.
But in the end, turnovers doomed any chance at an upset bid for the RedHawks, as they fell 24-7 to Lincoln-Way East on Nov. 23 in the Class 8A semifinals.
Arguably the biggest giveaway came with under 2:30 to play in the third quarter. Trailing 10-7, the RedHawks converted on a third down and had the ball at their own 33-yard line on a second-and-nine. Senior quarterback Hayden Mikesell found senior tight end Brendan Barry for a nine-yard gain, but Griffins defensive back Jalen Hacha swatted the ball free and defensive back Matt Kordas scooped up it and returned it 17 yards.
“[Hacha] was working on it all week in practice,” said Kordas, who picked off Mikesell in the East end zone last in the first half. “That kid, he busts his tail every day. I just saw [the ball] there, and I made the play. I had some good blocks on the sideline.
“It was a huge moment for us. We have been working on the strip drill all year. Our goal was to get three turnovers every game. This was the first time doing it.”
On the ensuing offensive possession for the Griffins, they scored on a three-yard touchdown run by senior AJ Henning to make it 17-7 with 1:07 left in the quarter.
The Griffins never looked back.
“[The fumble] was a big momentum shift,” Marist coach Ron Dawczak said. “But I’m so proud of the way the guys played. They kept fighting the whole time. Hayden led the offense. Our defense, we gave up a couple of plays, but overall, I’m just so proud of the kids and the way they fought this whole season. I told the seniors that they are going to be really successful in life based on the lessons they learned this year.”
Marist never led in the game. East scored first on a 14-yard touchdown run by junior running back Jamal Johnson (27 rushes, 173 yards) with 8:06 remaining in the first quarter.
The RedHawks tied it early in the second quarter on a 27-yard touchdown pass from Mikesell (12-of-32, 170 yards, TD, INT, 10 rushes, 46 rushing yards) to Barry (three receptions, 72 yards) with 8:51 left in the half.
Part of the RedHawks’ success during the game came via converting on third down.
“We have a lot of playmakers, and Hayden is such a smart quarterback and can see and fit the ball into tight spots,” Dawczak said of his team. “We trust our guys on the outside to get open, and we know that [Hayden] is going to put the ball on them.”
The Griffins struck back with a long drive that was capped by a 25-yard field goal by senior kicker Dominic Dzioban to give his team a 10-7 lead with 4:45 left in the quarter.
On the next series, the RedHawks drove down the field with a big 24-yard run by Mikesell and a 12-yard completion to AJ Markett. But the drive was ended on a heave from Mikesell to the end zone that was picked off by Kordas.
“Them being a great defense, they are going to make plays,” Dawczak said. “I can’t fault anybody on our team. We have played very clean offensively but had a couple turnovers — but we still had chances. The game wasn’t won or lost on any one of those plays. It just happens. When you’re playing a good team, they are going to make plays.”
Still, despite being down 17-7 going into the fourth quarter, the RedHawks were not out of the game.
East’s sideline felt that, too.
“Going into that fourth quarter, I grabbed [Henning] and said, ‘I need one from you,’” East coach Rob Zvonar said.
Henning delivered in a big way. After receiving a shovel pass from senior quarterback Kyle Quinn (5-of-8, 106 yards), Henning found the edge and took it 66 yards for the score to make it 24-7 with 6:27 to play.
Henning said he knew he was going to score the moment Quinn shoveled the ball forward and Henning got a look at his blocking.
“Max Tomczak made a great play on the outside to block and seal it off, and then I was able to cut up off his block,” Henning said. “After that, it was off to the races.”
Henning finished with two receptions for 81 receiving yards, as well as 19 rushing yards on seven attempts.
On the RedHawks’ last offensive series of the game, Mikesell was intercepted by East’s Josh Vargas to essentially end the game.
“To us, in our eyes, they are the best defense in the state – no matter what the paper says and no matter what ranking says,” Henning said of the Griffins defense. “We believe that we are the best defense in the state and the best team in the state. We play like that every down we are on the field.”
RedHawks’ senior running back Amari Watkins ended the day with 45 rushing yards on 12 carries, and freshman wide receiver Carnell Tate nabbed four receptions for 60 yards.
The loss ended what was an exciting playoff push for the RedHawks.
“The thing that I will never forget is just the way these seniors rose up to the challenge when their back was against the wall after Week 7 – sitting there at 3-4 – and when everybody in the world counted us out and said we were dead,” Dawczak said. “The way they blocked all of that out and came together and continued to fight and win games that people thought we had no business winning.
“In Week 9, when we went up and beat Loyola at their place, people thought that was a fluke. Nobody picked us to win the second game (in the Class 8A quarterfinals) when we were up there.
“The way these guys just handled their business, day in and day out, and stayed focused and worked hard. That’s something I’ll never forget.”