The St. Charles East defense was stunned early and the St. Charles North offense smelled blood.
Already leading by 2 touchdowns on their home field late in the first quarter thanks to Eric Lins touchdown runs of 72 and 2 yards, the North Stars -- ranked No. 7 in Class 7A -- seemed poised to run away and hide from the rival Saints.
Then St. Charles East used its turnover magic to transform a thrilling Upstate Eight River game it would eventually win 28-21.
St. Charles East (4-0, 2-0), which entered with a plus-10 turnover differential, forced a fumble and recovered it at the 31-yard line of St. Charles North (3-1, 1-1). The first positive play of the game for the Saints wouldn't be their last as the turnover ignited a momentum swing that lasted until midway through the fourth quarter.
St. Charles East scored 3 plays later on a 6-yard run by Nick Garlisch, the first of 28 straight points that turned the tables on the North Stars, who had beaten the Saints the last three years.
"We practiced at a high level all week, we believed in ourselves, we knew we were the best team in the conference and we showed it tonight," said Garlisch, who rushed for 43 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Big plays lifted the Saints all night, like junior Clayton Isbell's 50-yard punt return to the 10, which set up Garlisch's second touchdown run of 7 yards. Matt Burns' extra point knotted the score 14-14 with 4:33 left in the half.
The teams went to halftime tied after the Saints stopped the North Stars on downs at the East 33 with 1:05 left in the second quarter.
The St. Charles East offense took over in the second half, running the triple option offense to perfection. The Saints opened the third quarter with a 12-play, 80-yard drive, capped by quarterback Zach Mitchell's 9-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-2. The score staked the Saints to a 21-14 lead with 4:44 left in the third.
"All week we were preaching that if they come out and hit us hard, we have to have resilience and punch back when the times comes," said Mitchell, who carried 16 times for 51 yards. "Once we got momentum going our way, we were able to build off that."
On the ensuing possession, the North Stars were facing third-and-long in their own territory when quarterback Zach Mettetal tried to connect with Colorado State recruit Griffin Hammer on a 15-yard out. However, Garlisch stepped in front of the 6-foot-4 receiver to intercept the pass at the North 39.
Mettetal, a 77-percent passer entering the game, was limited to 10 completions in 19 attempts for 138 yards and a pick.
"On the offensive side of the ball, it was the execution," Mettetal said. "We started out good running the ball. I think once we had that fumble, the guys couldn't get it together. We had miscommunications, whenever we had a big play it was called back by a penalty. It just wasn't our night. We've got to bounce back."
Now, it was the Saints who smelled blood. On the first play after the interception, Mitchell hit Isbell for a 33-yard pass to the 9. Sophomore Justin Jett ran it in on the next play to make it a 28-14 lead with 57 seconds left in the third quarter.
Soon thereafter, a 41-yard fake punt pass from Lins to Lucas Sebogiano set up a 15-yard touchdown pass from Mettetal to Adam Durocher to draw the North Stars within 7.
The North Stars had one last chance with 20 seconds left in the game, but the East defense held. With time running out, Mettetal found Durocher for a 28-yard completion to the East 30 yard line, but Isbell made the tackle to end the game and send the Saints sideline into a frenzied celebration.
"I think we've been flying under the radar all year," St. Charles East coach Bryce Farquhar said. "I think everybody's always underestimated us. They're No. 7 for a reason. They're a great team, a lot of great players on that team. We think we've got a lot of great players on ours, too."