Visiting North Chicago probably won't get any style points, but in the end the Warhawks did barely manage to get the job done in Vernon Hills' North Suburban Prairie football homecoming game Friday night.
The evenly played game was a classic defensive struggle from start to finish as North Chicago (6-1, 4-1) pulled out a 9-6 NSC Prairie win on quarterback Jay Amos Mays' 1-yard keeper with only 20 seconds to play.
The win means that the Warhawks have officially qualified for the IHSA state playoffs for the first time since 2006 while the heartbroken Cougars fall to 1-6 overall and 0-4 in the division.
"I give credit to Vernon Hills, they stymied us for most of the night," said North Chicago coach Glen Kozlowski, whose team lost to Vernon Hills 43-8 last year. "Our kids got it together when we needed to and these are the ones that come down to making a play -- and we did."
One of the biggest plays of the game came when Vernon Hills reserve quarterback Jordan Freibrun's 6-yard keeper fell just inches short of a first down resulting in a punt with 2:58 remaining.
This was the chance North Chicago needed as a 13-yard keeper by Mays, an 18-yard pass from Mays to Tazari Bryant, and an 11-yard keeper by Mays put the ball on the Vernon Hills 3-yard line with just over a minute to play.
A 2-yard run by running back Arnold Shead (98 yards on 23 carries) put the ball on the 1 before Mays got a half a yard to set up a huge third-down play with the clocking ticking down.
As good as the Cougars' defense was the whole game, they could not deny Mays the end zone as Mays scored on a quarterback keeper from the half-yard line for what proved to be the winning score with 20 seconds left.
"We came up a couple of inches short to have to punt it away to them and in the end they made one more play than we did," said Vernon Hills coach Tony Monken. "It was just one of those nights, and it has kind of been that kind of a year for us."
Vernon Hills running back Sam Maloof lost a fumble on the Cougars' first play from scrimmage after being hit very hard on his first carry.
The Warhawks took advantage of the turnover as Roberto Maravilla's 31-yard field goal just cleared the crossbar for a 3-0 lead with 6:55 left in the first quarter.
The score remained 3-0 at halftime as Vernon Hills starting quarterback Brett Peterson and company really struggled against the stubborn North Chicago defense in the first half.
But in the third quarter Freibrun replaced the injured Peterson and he started the Cougars first drive of the third quarter with a 19-yard keeper to move the ball to the Warhawks' 28-yard-line.
Then a 3-yard keeper by Freibrun was followed by a 25-yard keeper for the TD by Freibrun with 9:09 left in the period. The extra point by Jeremy Cohen was blocked to keep the score at 6-3.
Besides juniors Peterson and Freibrun under center Friday, senior Jacob Hallendorff also so action at quarterback for Vernon Hills in the second half. But the Cougars never seriously threatened to score after Freibrun's TD.
Vernon Hills' Mike Mariella made a big interception with about five minutes left. But the Cougars inability to get the first down on the ensuing drive was critical.
Freibrun had an interception for the second straight game while teammate Rich Clark also had an interception early in the third quarter.
"North Chicago played good defense and they swarmed the ball," said Monken. "I feel bad for our seniors who did not get the win on homecoming, but I'm really proud of our effort."
Freibrun led the Cougars with 64 yards on 11 carries while teammate Mason Geick added 50 yards on 11 attempts.