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All that time Stevie Ciolek spent on the sideline last season. Not allowed to strap on a helmet and hit. Not permitted to run drills with his Wauconda football teammates.
Then Friday night, when the senior defensive back finally returned to the field for a varsity game, lightning hit Woodstock North. Ciolek -- and all of his teammates -- would have to exhibit patience again, as the season opener was suspended in the second quarter.
On Saturday, the sun shone at Woodstock North and was topped by Ciolek's even brighter smile. His touchdown return for a touchback provided a much-needed spark for Wauconda, and the Bulldogs took advantage by rallying for a 28-21 win.
"I feel awesome," Ciolek said. "Better than ever."
Ciolek had suffered a concussion in December of his sophomore year, when he said he got head-butted during wrestling. He missed the baseball season and then all of football last fall, too. A second concussion caused him to miss lots of school, as well.
"It was just one of those things where I didn't tell the coach (initially)," said Ciolek, who returned to wrestling in the middle of his junior season and qualified for the sectional. "I tried pushing it a little too much."
Ciolek may not have played football last season, but he didn't sit.
"He took a year off and let himself go through the healing process," Wauconda coach Dave Mills said. "He's a hardworking kid. He was at practice every day last year, even though he was just on the sideline setting up drills, water markers, whatever. The kids voted him captain. That says a lot about him and his work ethic."
The payoff came late in the third quarter against Woodstock North. Wauconda trailed 7-6 when the game was stopped Friday with 6:02 left in the second quarter. The deficit grew to 14-6 after the Thunder took advantage of a blocked punt deep in Wauconda territory, as quarterback Jimy Krenger scored from 1 yard out late in the first half.
Then after Wauconda's opening drive of the second half stalled, Ciolek provided a momentum-changing play. Bulldogs cornerback Luke Weller tipped a Krenger pass over the middle, and Ciolek secured the carom at the 50. He eluded tacklers, picked up lots of blocks and ran into the end zone with 2:35 left in the third. When quarterback Kevin Malisheski hit Jake Grobelny for the conversion, the score was tied 14-14.
"It was awesome," Ciolek said of his Pick 6. "It was a whole team effort on the play."
Woodstock North responded, as fullback Jordan Plummer capped a seven-play, 54-yard drive with a 4-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth. But Wauconda's offense then got going.
"(Ciolek's interception) got us really amped up," Malisheski said.
Alex Payne scored from 3 yards out, as Wauconda marched 79 yards on 10 plays to pull even again with 7:33 to go. Then after Wauconda's defense forced a three-and-out, Imasa Bowman's 15-yard punt return set up the visitors at the Thunder 22. Three plays later, Malisheski hit wide receiver Joey Schaer in the end zone from 16 yards out with 4:31 left.
On the game-winning play, Malisheski ran a "fake option right" on third-and-4. The corners came up, Schaer sat in a seam and Malisheski hit him.
Grant Rodgers' interception on Woodstock North's next possession iced the win.
"We took advantage of the break," Mills said. "We had a quarter and a half of film. We met this morning for about an hour and cleaned up a couple of things. We showed a few things and challenged the kids."
Wauconda wide receiver Josh Anderson caught 6 passes for 119 yards from Malisheski on Saturday. Malisheski finished 16 of 25 for 214 yards (no interceptions) and 2 scores. Parker Fink hauled in a TD catch Friday. Malisheski also ran some option Saturday, twice gaining 10 yards on runs and scampering 14 yards on another play.
"People underestimate how athletic I am," a smiling Malisheski joked. "I see open lanes so I just take off. I try to be smart. I try not to get hit too much."
Monday is Labor Day and the Bulldogs, gladly, will go to work. They practice on their new turf for the first time at 3:30 p.m.
"I can't wait," Malisheski said. "It's going to be fun. Way better than going out there after a loss."