Entering Friday night's game at West Chicago with a 1-4 record, Bartlett's football team knew it had no margin for error if the Hawks are to reach the magical 5-win mark and qualify for the state football playoffs for the 13th time in 14 years.
So, in desperate need of a lift heading into a critical four-game stretch, Bartlett turned to its primary strength: running the ball behind a large and physical offensive line.
The plan worked to near perfection. The Hawks amassed 318 yards on the ground against the smaller Wildcats, building a 20-point first-half lead before holding on for a 48-35 victory. Bartlett is now 2-4 overall and 2-2 in the Upstate Eight Conference's Valley Division.
"That's what we worked on all week," coach Tom Meaney said of the Hawks, who now need wins over Larkin, South Elgin and Neuqua Valley to advance to the playoffs. "We try to mix up the run and the pass, but the run has always been what we do best. Our offensive line did a good job of creating holes, and our running backs ran hard tonight."
Bartlett jumped ahead 7-0 behind a 4-yard touchdown run from Nolan Bernat midway through the first quarter. West Chicago answered on the ensuing possession with a 5-yard scamper by tailback Danny Lazzerini before a 12-yard quarterback keeper from Jordan Flint gave the Hawks the lead for good at 13-7. Bartlett then erupted for 21 second-quarter points, all courtesy of its rushing attack, to create a 34-14 cushion at the half. Bernat broke loose for touchdowns of 27 and 8 yards, and senior fullback Matt Callahan added a 48-yard score. Callahan finished with a season-best 127 yards on the ground.
"They came out and said we're bigger and stronger than you and we're going to push you around a bit, and they did," West Chicago coach Bill Bicker said. "That's why we continue to stress the need for everyone to hit the weight room. We need to learn how to work hard and get bigger and stronger in the off-season through the weight room."
West Chicago (0-6, 0-3) tried staying in striking range behind a 13-yard second-quarter touchdown run by Lazzerini, who rambled for a season-high 127 yards while scoring his sixth and seventh TDs of the season. The junior helped the Wildcats to a season-best 387 yards of offense, most of which they gained in the second half as the hosts tried to catch the Hawks. After Callahan broke free for a 48-yard touchdown and a 40-14 third-quarter lead, West Chicago rang up 21 points in a span of less than nine minutes. Flanker Parrish Benton found the end zone on a 7-yard run for his first varsity touchdown, and wideout Alex Mitchell hauled in a 30-yard pass from quarterback Jordan Lelito (14 of 23, 223 yards, 2 TDs) that made it 48-28. A successful onside kick led to a 23-yard touchdown pass from Lelito to Colin Lelito with 3:45 remaining, but a second onside kick attempt sailed out of bounds to end West Chicago's rally.
While Bartlett strives for yet another playoff appearance, West Chicago is trying to build a foundation for future success. The coaches are optimistic about a junior class that is gaining valuable experience this season. A total of 12 juniors are among the team's 22 starters on offense and defense, including a potential star running back in Lazzerini.
"I think a lot of people don't realize how good of a football team West Chicago can be if we do the things we need to do in the off-season," Benton said. "We as juniors need to hit the weight room and come back next year bigger, stronger and faster. We need to listen to our coaches and do what they tell us to help turn this program around. Today was probably our best offensive game of the season. It's something we need to build on."