Is there such a thing as stunned expectation?
If so, Naperville Central's football team displayed it with authority Saturday night.
Rallying from a 2-touchdown second-half deficit, the Redhawks pulled out a thrilling 27-21 victory over visiting Marist in the Class 8A semifinals to advance to the championship game for the first time since 2001.
Naperville Central took the 6-point lead with 1:23 left when quarterback Jake Kolbe scored on a 1-yard run and converted the 2-point pass. Marist drove to Naperville Central's 23-yard line with 20 seconds left, but Michael Kolzow snared an interception in the end zone -- his second of the game -- to seal the victory.
Not bad for a team that didn't make the playoffs a year ago. Or a team that lost three straight games late in the regular season.
This Naperville Central team, however, has proved to be a different breed since well before the season began. The Redhawks (10-3) always knew they could make it to this point...even when most other people didn't.
"Losing those three straight definitely helped us battle through this game when we were down," said Kolzow, who also had 7 catches for 106 yards and a touchdown. "It's definitely a dream come true."
Naperville Central faces Loyola (12-1), a 15-14 winner over Stevenson, in the 8A final at 7 p.m. next Saturday at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.
"I think we wanted it more," said Redhawks defensive lineman Nate Teske. "We came back with a lot of teamwork, our coaches were with us all the way. It's a great feeling right now."
Marist (9-4) appeared in complete control after scoring 21 unanswered points to build a 21-7 lead midway through the third quarter on Peter Andreotti's third touchdown. Naperville Central, which started the scoring early in the first quarter on Kolzow's 44-yard interception return for a touchdown, stopped the bleeding with a 2-yard dive for a touchdown by Nolan Davis.
A tipped and missed extra point kept the deficit at 21-13 heading to the fourth quarter.
The Redhawks quickly got the ball back but had to start from their 1-yard line. A 55-yard strike from Kolbe to Kolzow got them out of their end of the field, and then a 12-yard scoring pass from Kolbe to Kolzow capped the 99-yard drive and cut the margin to 21-19 after the 2-point conversion attempt failed.
Disaster nearly struck with about seven minutes left when a Marist punt hit a Naperville Central player and bounded toward the end zone. Marist, however, allowed the ball to roll into the end zone instead of falling on it before it reached the goal line. That led the officials to rule the play a touchback and Naperville Central's ball instead of a fumble recovery and Marist touchdown.
Regardless of the scare, Naperville Central responded with an 18-play, 80-yard drive that ate up six minutes of clock. Kolbe's 1-yard touchdown capped the stunning comeback and left Marist with little time for its own rally.
Marist came close, but Kolzow's interception ended the threat and pushed the Redhawks a victory shy of their second state title. The first was the 6A title they claimed in 1999.
"Nobody on this team was ready for this journey to end," said Redhawks linebacker Jack Wooldridge. "I truly believe we wanted that win more than they did."
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