CHAMPAIGN -- Glenbard West's football team needed something special to become a state champion on Saturday.
The Hilltoppers needed to be Hitters.
Living up to Glenbard West's decades-old alternative nickname, the Hitters claimed their second state championship in program history with a physically grueling 10-8 victory over fellow unbeaten Lincoln-Way East in the Class 7A final at Memorial Stadium.
"If we're the best defense in the state, that's the second-best defense," said Glenbard West coach Chad Hetlet.
With less than two minutes left and Glenbard West clinging to a 10-6 lead, Hilltoppers junior safety Hayden Carlson delivered a crushing open-field fourth-and-10 tackle that flipped Lincoln-Way East quarterback Tom Fuessel on his back to prevent a first down inside the 10-yard line. Stopping Fuessel 3 yards short of a first-and-goal -- and possibly a touchdown -- may have meant the difference between Glenbard West winning its first state championship since 1983 and matching its runner-up finishes of 1976 and 2009.
"That's exactly what was running through my head," Carlson said. "I've got to make this play or else we could potentially lose the state championship."
Carlson and the Hilltoppers' defense were not done for the night after the bone-jarring hit.
Glenbard West (14-0) failed to gain a first down from its own 6-yard line and chose to take a safety instead of risking a punt block or punt return by the Griffins (13-1).
Lincoln-Way East took over at the Hilltoppers' 45-yard line with 23 seconds left and no timeouts following the free kick that sailed out of bounds.
The decisive final drive started with a tipped pass by Glenbard West's Jack Wheeler. Two quarterback takedowns sealed the championship for the Hilltoppers.
"We just had to win the line, get off the ball," said Hilltoppers defensive lineman Ruben Dunbar, who had a sack and batted down two passes. "It all starts up front."
"It's the state championship, we expect that when we come in and play a team like Glenbard West," said Fuessel, who was sacked five times. "It was going to be physical, and we knew that."
Total offense was virtually even, with the Griffins holding a 197-195 advantage, but three turnovers by Glenbard West nearly doomed its title hopes. Lincoln-Way East's Jarrett Lecas snared an interception in the end zone, and the Griffins recovered a pair of fourth-quarter fumbles: one in the red zone and the other at midfield that led to Carlson's game-saving tackle.
Glenbard West finished with 50 rushing yards -- well below its season average of 238 yards a game. The Hilltoppers turned to quarterback Henry Haeffner and the passing game to seize control in the first half.
Haeffner, who finished 10 of 13 for 145 yards, completed his first five passes capped by a 25-yard touchdown strike to Nathan Marcus to put the Hilltoppers ahead 7-0 late in the first quarter. Hayden Lekacz nailed a 27-yard field goal in the final minute of the second quarter to make it a 10-0 halftime lead.
"I didn't know we'd pass that much," said Marcus, who had 5 catches for 55 yards. "We had some plays that we put in for the passing game. We just had to keep pushing it and hope some of these plays would open up into bigger gains."
Lincoln-Way East committed to the run in the second half, rushing the ball on 39 of its first 43 plays. The Griffins, who wound up with 150 ground yards, finally saw the dedication pay off with a 35-yard touchdown run by Justin Corbett with 2:47 left in the third quarter.
The Griffins missed the extra point, however, preserving a 10-6 lead for Glenbard West.
"It's certainly much more of a credit to what Glenbard West did right than what we did wrong, no doubt about that," said Griffins coach Rob Zvonar. "Tremendously well-coached football team. It was as fast and physical a high school football game as you're going to see."
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