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Daily Herald's 2017 Season Coverage
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updated: 11/18/2016 9:15 PM

Palatine's defense embraces epic test at Maine South

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  • Palatine's Dylan Tapia, right, breaks up a pass intended for St. Charles East's Clayton Isbell late in the fourth quarter of Saturday's Class 8A quarterfinal matchup.

      Palatine's Dylan Tapia, right, breaks up a pass intended for St. Charles East's Clayton Isbell late in the fourth quarter of Saturday's Class 8A quarterfinal matchup.
    Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

  • Palatine coach Rick Splitt celebrates his team's victory last weekend against St. Charles East.

      Palatine coach Rick Splitt celebrates his team's victory last weekend against St. Charles East.
    Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

 
By Dick Quagliano
Daily Herald Correspondent

Palatine's challenge is daunting: to stop the Greek Gods.

The Pirates' defense may need a mythic performance Saturday in the Class 8A football semifinal matchup at 2 p.m. at Maine South in Park Ridge. That defense figures to have its hands full in keeping Hawks quarterback Nick Leongas and running back Fotis Kokosioulis in check.

The duo has been instrumental in Maine South (9-3) advancing to the state semifinals for the 11th time in school history. The Hawks are averaging over 41 points, with wins over undefeated West Aurora, Barrington and Lincoln-Way East in the playoffs.

"This is Maine South, and they do a lot of things very well," Palatine coach Rick Splitt said. "That quarterback and running back tandem are very good. Some of the best we have seen all year."

While this Maine South team is led by a couple of standouts, they are certainly not invincible. Two of the Hawks' three losses came at the hands of Barrington and New Trier, a pair of teams that Palatine defeated.

"Playing a team like Barrington does help," Splitt said. "But every team is different. Maine South is a great challenge for us and we are up for it."

Splitt has his Pirates (12-0), who are making their second consecutive trip to the semifinals, completely buying into that philosophy. And it has paid huge dividends.

"The thing with this group is that they take pride in the little things," Splitt said. "We are not big, but we teach them to be fast and physical."

When quarterback Zach Oles, the MSL West's top offensive player went down in the first playoff game, it was the defense that came together.

"Against Notre Dame, it was very quiet when Zach got hurt," said Cortez Hogans, a junior linebacker. "Knowing that the offense lost a key player, we knew that the defense had to step up."

Scotty Elter, who missed last year's playoffs with a torn ACL, knew what Oles was going through.

"It was hard last year to watch at times," Elter said. "This year has been a blast and we so love playing together.

"Zach and I texted back and forth after he got hurt. I definitely know how he feels. .We just tell him before every game we are playing for him."

The defensive line of Mackenzie Balanganayi, Bryant Smith, Josh Danielson and Jesus Salinas, along with linebackers Elter, Hogans and Brody Muck and are joined by defensive backs JT Streepy, Jake Moertl, Matt Garner and Dylan Tapia reached down and found another gear.

That group has allowed just 3 touchdowns in the postseason. They Pirates have also have 8 interceptions in the playoffs and have allowed their opponents to complete just 27 of 54 passes for 230 yards.

"It is very fun," Tapia said. "We know that other teams think they are bigger and just better than us. But we just play fast and physical and we know we can compete with anyone."

Splitt says his defense has showed tremendous tenacity this season. From stopping Lyons in overtime to bouncing back after a 10-minute drive to open the game last week against St. Charles, the defense has come up huge when called upon.

"That first series, that 18-play drive, it was not fun," Splitt said. "Our guys took it upon themselves. They were not happy with that performance. They took it upon themselves to make it work."

Despite qualifying for the semifinals for the second year in row, Splitt said the feeling amongst his players and coaches is that it is just another game.

"You ask any football coach," Splitt said. "It is just like the Dunkin Donuts commercial where it is Time to make the donuts.' The routine is nonstop. The fun thing is working with the kids."

That work is now how to bring a couple of gods down to earth.

"They are fast and physical runners," Balanganayi said. "We have been practicing angle-tackling. As long as we play as a team and rally to the ball, I think we will be fine."

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