A pick-six by Tyler Koss was just the first of three quick fixes of momentum for Huntley in its Class 8A second-round playoff football game with visiting Fremd on Saturday afternoon.
Koss' 25-yard interception return came just 55 seconds after the 24th-seeded Red Raiders scored the game's first touchdown late in the first quarter. That gave them a double-digit lead they maintained until the final two minutes as they held on for a 38-30 victory and advanced to the quarterfinals for only the second time in school history.
"We all had one goal and that's state," Koss said after he also intercepted a deflected end zone pass on the final play of the first half. "That's our goal right now. We're one step closer and we want to keep the momentum going to next week."
That is when the Red Raiders (8-3) will be at home for the big challenge of facing top-seed and defending 8A champion Loyola (11-0), a 22-3 winner on Saturday over No. 16 Oswego East (9-2). But being one of four quarterfinalists from the Fox Valley Conference helps reinforce their belief they will be a formidable challenger for anyone they face.
"We had a couple of losses that were bad losses but we're not even thinking about that anymore," said Huntley junior quarterback Eric Mooney after he rushed for 2 touchdowns and threw for another. "We picked the right time to gell together."
Mooney was battling the flu, Illinois-bound defensive lineman Olalere Oladipo's time was limited with a sprained ankle and leading receiver Alec Coss was out with a broken collarbone. None of that could stop Huntley from joining the 2001 Class 4A semifinalist as teams to get this far.
Mooney (9-for-15, 207 yards) completed 13-yard passes to Matthew Gelander and Jacob Rodgers (5 catches, 89 yards) on third and fourth down to set up his 5-yard touchdown run with 1:58 left in the first quarter. Mooney also had a 42-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Antonsen and a 43-yard touchdown run to give Huntley fourth-quarter leads of 31-10 and 38-16.
"Eric is just a phenomenal player for us," said Huntley first-year coach Matt Zimolzak. "Someone brought up Michael Jordan and how he performed (for the Bulls with the flu in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA finals). He's one of those competitors."
Two plays later Huntley felt even better when Koss jumped an out route from No. 25 Fremd (7-4) quarterback Tom Josten (23-for-40, 276 yards) and raced untouched into the end zone.
"That kept us going and gave us a lot of momentum," Koss said.
"That play was huge," Mooney said. "That got us confident and got us ready to go. That picked up our offense and picked up our defense."
Nick Cecchin (11 catches, 120 yards) tried to pick up Fremd with a 79-yard return on the ensuing kickoff to the Huntley 15. A stop for no gain by Tony Bucaro and a sack by Charlie Zornow forced the Vikings to settle for Luke Schoffstall's seventh field goal of the season from 30 yards.
Huntley answered with Chase Zion's 20-yard field goal for a 17-3 lead.
"We talked at halftime that it was probably the worst half of football we played all season," said Fremd coach Lou Sponsel. "Still, at 17-3, we're in it and could come back and fight through it."
Fremd started its first second-half possession at its own 1 and converted a fourth-and-1 at its own 27. But its drive to the 25 stalled and it took Huntley just 5 plays and 1:03 to go 75 yards for a 24-3 lead on a 3-yard run by Carter Beaudette (17 carries, 56 yards) with 1:21 left in the third.
Fremd tried to rally as Josten scored from a yard and threw touchdown passes of 26 yards to Cecchin, 8 yards to Austin Schwantz and 18 yards to Mitch Kazmer (6 catches, 114 yards) in the final 9:37. But Tyler Szekely fell on an onside kick and Huntley was able to run out the final 1:42.
"Last week it seemed like everything went right," Sponsel said of a 45-42 upset win at Brother Rice. "This week it seemed like one at a time across the team, everyone picked that play to have a basic fundamental breakdown.
"We talked last week and this week that winning in the playoffs is about fundamentals. Fundamentally we weren't very good today."