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It had all the makings of an annual homecoming celebration, because that's what it was. More importantly, the postseason essentially started for St. Charles North, which needed to win over visiting Larkin on Friday night and next week against South Elgin to have a shot at the state playoffs.
Behind 3 touchdowns from running back Evan Kurtz, the North Stars (4-4, 4-2) made good on the first step of that journey with a 33-24 Upstate Eight River victory that looked and smelled like a season opener for the most part because of erratic play and a load of penalties.
"It wasn't pretty at all, and we told the kids we wanted them to play playoff football and this was nowhere near playoff football," St. Charles North coach Mark Gould said.
Gould said his team had "a real fun week of practice this week," but added, "that's exactly how we played."
He didn't mean that in a good way, even though the North Stars kept their postseason hopes alive by outlasting an undermanned, but game Larkin squad.
Kurtz and fellow running back George Edlund, (21 carries, 220 yards), who tallied a 49-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, were the main offensive bright spots for the North Stars.
"Our offense moved the ball well tonight, but we just couldn't put Larkin away when we had to do it," Gould said. "We're going to have to play much better because that's not going to get it done next week."
Kurtz helped make sure the North Stars got it done on this night, opening the scoring with a 5-yard touchdown run four minutes into the game after St. Charles North took advantage of starting its first drive on the Larkin 40-yard line after a short punt.
Kurtz added a 14-yard scoring run late in the first half to go along with Edlund's long scoring jaunt.
The North Stars needed both scores to offset Larkin's two first-half scores — a 63-yard lightning-bolt touchdown run from Damion Clemons and a 35-yard touchdown reception from Dante Bonds.
"We came into this game knowing Larkin was going to battle us hard," Kurtz said. "Our offensive line did a great job of pushing through and driving them off the line, and that was a big part of us establishing our running game."
Neither team had much luck with extra points, with the North Stars' Kat Stutesman finally kicking one through the uprights after Kurtz' second TD for the only extra point either team could muster in the first half.
When the North Stars scored on a 15-yard pass from quarterback Erik Miller to Zachary Kirby, Edlund powered in for the 2-point conversion and a 27-12 lead early in the third quarter.
Larkin's passing attack tailed off in the second half, and the Royals' offense stalled in the process. Kurtz barreled into the end zone from 9 yards out midway through the fourth quarter for a 33-12 lead and what appeared to be a sealing blow.
But the Royals responded quickly on the very next play, as Clemons ripped off his second 63-yard touchdown sprint of the night. Larkin (2-6, 1-4) blocked a North Star punt moments later, setting up a short field that allowed Maurece Herrion-Jackson to score on a 1-yard run with 3:07 left in the game.
When the 2-point run failed, the North Stars dodged the bullet and lived to play another meaningful game next week.
"Next week has to be fun, but in a different way," Gould said. "We were too sloppy, with too many penalties, and that won't work in South Elgin."
Larkin coach Mike Scianna feels his team is finally getting its footing, giving foes a competitive contest despite as many as six or seven players playing both offense and defense.
"Some of our juniors are finally stepping up," Scianna said. "I felt them coming on when we lost to Batavia 48-0 because we were starting to hit and get physical, and I could see it in practices and games."
Scianna said quarterback Kemmerin Blalark is a key for his team.
"We are becoming a good team at this point and we can play pretty well when we have our quarterback," Scianna said.
"He really played the part of a leader for us tonight," he added.