On an otherwise perfect Friday night for Grayslake North's football team, all that was missing was Jesse Davis.
Holding his injured junior linebacker's black, nicked-up helmet, as he addressed his players following their historic win at chilly Crystal Lake Central, was the least Steve Wood could do. After the Knights coach told his team to huddle and break, he handed to his 8-year-old son, Brock, Davis' helmet.
While his Grayslake North teammates were beating Crystal Lake Central 32-20 -- a win that clinched the Knights' first playoff berth, gave them their school-record sixth win and put them alone atop the Fox Valley Conference Fox Division standings -- Davis was in the hospital, wearing his No. 7 jersey, Wood said. Davis, who broke his tibia and fibula against Woodstock last week, had surgery Friday to repair his right leg.
"He's sent me multiple texts already," Wood said. "His mind's here. I told him, 'You wear your jersey. We'll carry your helmet.' "
Grayslake North's defense made the wounded Knight proud, shutting the door on the Tigers after the hosts pulled within 26-20 on quarterback Kyle Lavand's 55-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Isaiah Mosher with 3:22 left in the third quarter. Crystal Lake Central never scored again, with Knights linebacker Spencer Davis -- who's no relation to Jesse Davis -- getting an interception late to seal the Tigers' fate.
"He was just a big part of our team -- emotionally, vocally and physically," Grayslake North senior outside linebacker Jake Smith, who had a pair of tackles for loss, said of Jesse Davis. "That's who I played for. I played for two people -- me and him."
Crystal Lake Central (5-2, 3-1) made sure Knights quarterback A.J. Fish did not run wild. The Tigers held the senior star without a rushing TD for the first time this season and limited him to just 60 yards on 26 carries, which included three knees on the game's final possession. But Grayslake North (6-1, 4-0) prevailed anyway, as Fish used his great scrambling ability and arm. Fish completed 14 of 25 passes for 241 yards and 4 touchdown passes.
Crystal Lake Central had taken a 14-7 lead in the second quarter on a 1-yard run by Darwin Stone and Mosher's 56-yard sprint on a reverse. But Fish manufactured a late scoring drive, which he capped by throwing a screen pass Charlie Pine, who raced 47 yards into the end zone with 1:36 left before halftime.
"The play was designed for me to block, and if there was no one coming in, to go out and try to help A.J.," Pine said. "A.J. does such a good job as is. I just come up and I try to get whatever I can out of it. If it wasn't for the blocking down the field (by Anthony Diggs and Vince Smith), I wouldn't have been able to get that far. We had some great blocking today."
Fish threw a 37-yard TD pass to Bradd Baker on the first possession of the second half. Fish and Pine then hooked up on another screen, this one covering 77 yards, to hike the Knights' lead to 26-14 with 3:43 left in the third.
"He's an athlete, and that's what athletes do," Wood said of Fish. "When you got an athlete like him, you take one aspect (rushing or passing), and you got the other aspect. We don't want to live like that, obviously. We'd like to be a little bit more 'typical' with our approach, but when you got it, you got to use it."
"Half the plays that we run are not even designed that way," Pine said. "A.J. is just so elusive. We just follow him. You'll think he's down. He's not down. The next thing you know, he's going the other way."
Fish capped the scoring late in the third with a 13-yard scoring pass to Diggs.
"This is great for our program," Smith said of the win. "We just had to prove to people that it was going to happen."