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When Glenbard North's 2011 football campaign closed with a Class 8A semifinal loss to Loyola Academy, running back Justin Jackson felt like he had not contributed enough to his team.
After this year's semifinal -- again against Loyola on Saturday afternoon in Wilmette -- you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who felt Jackson could have done anymore than he did this time around. After all, the Panthers junior scored 4 touchdowns, played stellar on defense and helped Glenbard North hold off a late Ramblers rally for a 27-24 win and a spot in next weekend's Class 8A championship game against either Neuqua Valley or Mt. Carmel.
"It feels great, but we want to take another step," said Jackson, who ran for 242 yards and 3 touchdowns on 45 carries and also hauled in a TD pass that gave his team a 14-0 lead in the second quarter. "I didn't feel like I had a big enough impact last year and I felt like I let those seniors down. But this is probably one of the best games I've ever had."
The Panthers struck first after lineman Connor Dombrowski blocked a Ramblers punt and returned the ball to the 5-yard line, which set the stage for Jackson's 4-yard score two plays later. It was the first of many big pays by a Panthers defense that limited Loyola (11-2) to just a last-minute field goal in the first half. The stout unit then helped the visitors build a 27-10 lead after three quarters before the Ramblers made things interesting with a furious rally.
"That was a big play for us and it was important to get ourselves a lead," Dombrowski said. "It's crazy to be headed downstate. Surreal."
The Panthers defense -- which forced six punts and recovered two fumbles -- got the ball back after Jackson's short TD run and then the lead reached two touchdowns after Brian Murphy dropped a perfectly placed 19-yard TD over a defender and into the arms of Jackson, who did the rest, scoring the second of four TDs in the game to give him 36 on the year.
Loyola did answer with a late field goal and then closed to within 14-10 when Richie Wehman made a nice one-handed grab of a 12-yard scoring pass from Peter Pujals, who recorded 173 of his 272 passing yards in the second half.
But just when Loyola appeared to have taken control of the momentum, Glenbard North answered with an 80-yard drive capped by a 12-yard Jackson score and then followed that up with a 59-yard scamper by Jackson behind the big block of Mitch Siver.
"It's great to be in the semifinals twice now when most players would love to make it once," said Siver, a 5-foot-10, 280-pound senior. "But now I want it all."
Asked about Jackson's long touchdown that made the score 27-10 late in the third quarter, Siver said, "You get attachment (with the defender) and then you just wait for the fireworks from Justin."
Loyola coach John Holecek's team rallied with two late TD passes, but following each score the Panthers recovered the onside kick, and when Glenbard North's Alex Smith recovered the final kick with 46 seconds left to play, the Ramblers' bid to return to the state finals came up just short.
"Obviously, he's a super back, and that's a physical offensive line," Holecek said. "We didn't play our best tackling, but what can you say? They earned that victory."