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Don't blame Hersey football coach Dragan Teonic if he places stickers with the number 37 on his team's helmets heading into next week's playoffs.
The Huskies finished off their regular season by scoring a 37-29 Mid-Suburban East victory over Wheeling (2-7, 1-4). By ending the season in a 3-way tie for the East Division title with Rolling Meadows and Elk Grove, the Huskies (6-3, 4-1) earned their first MSL divisional title since 1976, a 37-year dry spell.
"In four years, we went from 0-5 to 4-1 and the conference champs, and that's a great thing," Teonic said. "I'm proud of our guys."
"It's pretty special for our program," said quarterback Jack Warner, who completed 13 of 18 passes for 164 yards and touchdowns of 5 and 20 yards to Eddie Miklasz (7 catches for 92 yards). "It shows how much the work you put in makes a difference.
"We worked hard every day, and we changed this program," said running back Mario Thomas who ripped off a pair of 80-yard touchdown runs on successive carries en route to a 3 touchdown, 270-yard performance. "We didn't know how far we could go, but as the games went on, the ceiling went higher.
"We know now how good we can be," Thomas said.
And the expectations have been elevated.
"In my sophomore and junior year, we didn't expect to win, but we expect to compete and win every time we step on the field," said defensive standout Grant Burke, who had several big stops, including a pair of tackles for loss.
Despite falling behind 30-9 after Thomas' second 80-yard touchdown to open the second half, Wheeling had plenty left, scoring on three successive possessions.
Amani Dennis (15 carries for 136 yards) scored his second rushing touchdown of the game from 2 yards out to cut the deficit to 30-16. With the wind at his back, Dennis (15 of 26 for 228 yards) lofted 2 touchdown passes to Tyler Urban (8 catches for 151 yards), from 44 and 38 yards out, the latter cutting the lead to 30-29 after the conversion attempt failed.
In the fourth quarter, a Wheeling punt into the wind left the Huskies with great field position, and Thomas did all the work, carrying 5 times for all 33 yards, the final 16 going for the touchdown that gave Hersey some breathing room, 37-29 with 7:49 left in the game.
"It's been the story of our season," Wheeling coach Brent Pearlman said. "We got better as the season went long, but when we needed a play, we struggled."
The game's first 3 possessions were a preview of the back-and-forth contest that was to unfold. Warner connected with Miklasz for a 5-yard touchdown with 6:42 left in the first quarter and answered Dennis' 81-yard yard touchdown with a 20-yard scoring pass to Miklasz with 2:25 remaining in the opening quarter.
Erick Cebrero's 24-yard field goal cut the margin to 14-9, but on the first play after the kickoff, Thomas burst through for his first 80-yard TD to make it 22-9. He did it again on the exact same play on the first play after halftime to give Hersey a 30-9 advantage.
"I have to give the O-line credit," Thomas said. "If not for them, I couldn't have made those runs. He cited Pat Flynn, Spencer Kreuger, Danny Somary, Chris Collins, Tyler Masini and George Vladimirov for paving the way for his big night.