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Much has been made about the Grayslake North offense over the last few years.
The high-powered, high-scoring Knights led the Fox Valley Fox Division with 41.2 points per game last year and are the highest scorers in the league again this year at 35.3 points per game.
But on Friday night in a crosstown rivalry game against sister school Grayslake Central, it was the Grayslake North defense that scored major points with the fans.
The Knights came up with some big turnovers, including 2 fumble recoveries late in the second half. One helped Grayslake North regain the lead, the other helped seal a 24-21 victory over Grayslake Central, which had jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter.
Overall, Grayslake North, which improves to 6-1 on the season (4-1 Fox), recovered 6 fumbles by Grayslake Central (3-4, 1-3 Fox).
"Our offense feeds off of our defensive presence," said junior outside linebacker George Deligiannis, whose first fumble recovery of the season stopped a Grayslake Central drive with 4:34 left in the fourth quarter. "When our defense gets turnovers, our offense is going to turn that into points."
That didn't happen off of the recovery by Deligiannis, but it did happen on the next series, late in the third quarter, when the Knights recovered yet another fumble.
Grayslake Central coughed up the ball around the 30-yard line and then an unsportsmanlike penalty gave Grayslake North the ball at the 15-yard line. It took the Knights five plays to reach the end zone. Quarterback Merrick Gentile ran in a 2-yard touchdown to give Grayslake North a 17-14 lead with 11:56 left in the game.
"When we're not (clicking on offense), the defense helps us out," said Gentile, who scored 2 touchdowns and ran for 147 yards on 15 carries. "They kept us in it until we got going. The offense always knew we had it in us. We showed it at the end."
So did Central.
After North turned the fumble recovery into a touchdown, the Rams methodically marched down the field and capped an 11-play, 64-play drive with a 1-yard touchdown run by quarterback Alex Lennartz. That gave the Rams a 21-17 lead with 8 minutes remaining.
But North put together its own meaty drive on the next possession and regained the lead (24-21) with a 7-yard touchdown run by Gentile with 5:56 left. Another fumble recovery by the defense three plays into the next possession put the North offense back on the field.
The Knights couldn't quite run out the clock and Central got the ball back with 2:35 left. But another Central fumble, recovered by North defensive lineman Greg Cashman with just seconds remaining, sealed the game.
"We just had a couple of possessions there where we got sloppy and that's what killed us," said Lennartz, who ran for 100 yards on 23 carries and scored 2 touchdowns. "We needed to put ourselves in a position to win and we came up short. But I really feel that as a team, we're still building and we're still getting better and that's all that matters as we go into the last two weeks."
Grayslake Central still has a chance to secure a playoff berth. The Rams would need to win out and then also have enough playoff points (based on opponents wins) to make the cut.
Meanwhile, Grayslake North secured its second straight playoff berth with the victory.
"These are the games we need. Being up by 42 points in the third quarter or 50 points at halftime isn't going to make us better for the playoffs. It's not going to prepare us for what's ahead," said Grayslake North coach Steve Wood, referring to his team's early season blowouts. "This is what does it, proving yourself and coming together in adversity and in a close game."
Besides Gentile's touchdowns, the Knights also got a touchdown from Titus Booker (2 yards) and a 34-yard field goal from kicker Bernard Drewno. Booker finished with 121 yards on 28 carries.
For Central, Lennartz also threw for a touchdown in the first quarter (28 yards to Kacey Adams) and Malcolm Reed ran in a 2-yard touchdown. Those two scores gave the Rams a 14-0 lead with 2:30 left in the first quarter.
"It was a great rivalry atmosphere with kids playing hard on both sides," Grayslake Central coach Ben Ault said. "This is what high school football is supposed to be about. It's just the fumbles hurt us tonight. They came at inopportune times."