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It took only a week for Wheaton Warrenville South's football team to silence any doubters.
Bouncing back from last week's loss, the Tigers topped previously unbeaten Naperville Central 14-7 to claw right back into the hunt for the DuPage Valley Conference title.
With the score knotted at 7-7 late in the fourth quarter Friday in Wheaton, WW South (5-1, 3-1) took advantage of good field position by driving 42 yards in 5 plays to grab the lead for good. After throwing first-down passes to Keishawn Watson and Connor Ostrander, Tigers quarterback Ryan Graham scored on a 7-yard run to put his team ahead with 2:45 left in the game.
On the ensuing possession Naperville Central (5-1, 3-1) used first downs to reach WW South's 48-yard line. A pair of sacks by Mocha Uchiyama, however, helped bury the Redhawks into a fourth-and-40 situation.
WW South got the ball back but was unable to drain the rest of the clock. The Redhawks had one final play in the waning seconds, but the Tigers held on to ease the sting of last week's 21-14 loss to Naperville North.
Defending DVC champion Glenbard North now sits alone atop the standings. WW South, Naperville Central and Wheaton North loom right behind with a loss apiece as Glenbard North visits the Redhawks next Friday in another key conference showdown.
"The energy just bouncing back from our loss was huge today," Uchiyama said. "The game was kind of put on us at the end. We needed that one more stop. The instinct in us kind of came out and we played our best at that point."
WW South's defense — headed by Uchiyama's quarterback pressure and 17 tackles by linebacker Joe Machalek — severely limited a Naperville Central offense that came into the game averaging 46 points. The Redhawks managed 11 first downs and 232 total yards, including 160 passing yards by Illinois State-bound quarterback Jake Kolbe.
Thanks to the stellar play from the Redhawks' defense, they stayed in the game. Kolbe's 1-yard scoring run near the end of the third quarter tied the game at 7-7, but they struggled to get out of their own half of the field the rest of the game.
WW South, in fact, kept Naperville Central trapped on its side the entire first half, using a pair of turnovers and twice pinning down the Redhawks inside their 10-yard line on Evan Jakubowski punts. Naperville Central finally reached WW South territory for the first time with seven minutes left in the third quarter.
"Give credit to Wheaton South, they came out and defensively they took away some of the things we like to try and do," said Redhawks coach Mike Stine. "We had those two turnovers in the first half, which kept us in bad field position. We battled back and tied it and then we just could never get anything going."
WW South opened the scoring with just less than four minutes left in the first half. Watson's long punt return set up the Tigers at Naperville Central's 20, and four straight Isaiah Campos runs led to his 2-yard scoring burst.
The battle for field possession continued throughout the game as the teams combined for 15 punts. Time and again, the defenses rose to the occasion.
"We ignored all the stuff about people doubting us and just focused on this game," Machalek said. "Saturday we learned from the loss. We got after it this week in practice. We just came out here and stayed confident in ourselves."
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