Seeking the next person to hug on Sycamore's field, and usually looking up considering his fire-hydrant frame, Vernon Hills defensive tackle Tyler Brancato enjoyed a larger-than-life moment.
"I feel pretty tall," joked Brancato, who's listed at 5 feet 8 but acknowledges he's generously 5-5 or 5-6. "I feel about 6-1 maybe."
The three-year varsity player and all of Vernon Hills felt skyscraper size, and not even an icy-cold northwest wind on a gray Saturday was going to slap smiles off the faces of those celebrating the Cougars' 21-16 win. For the first time in 17 years as a program, the football team is headed to state.
"It's incredible," linebacker Jeff Rosenstock said among a sea of white uniforms. "The whole community drove an hour and a half out here. Everyone loves it. We love it. Football's back here (at Vernon Hills). It feels good."
Playing in the state semifinals for the first time, Vernon Hills scored on the third play from scrimmage, as quarterback Kyle Hull hit Max Lyle over the middle for a 57-yard touchdown pass, and the Cougars had the lead for keeps, despite a late push by the home squad.
No. 7 Vernon Hills (10-3) will play top-seeded Peoria (12-1), a 43-35 winner over No. 3 Morris, for the Class 5A state championship at 10 a.m. Saturday at the University of Illinois' Memorial Stadium in Champaign.
While Vernon Hills' first-team defense allowed its first points of the postseason, the offense made it sure it provided a cushion. No. 13 Sycamore (8-5) finally solved the Cougars when Grant McConkey kicked a 24-yard field goal in the second quarter, cutting the Spartans' deficit to 7-3, but the visitors answered immediately.
Drew Winegardner's 5-yard touchdown run capped a nine-play drive that started at the Vernon Hills 27. Nick Marras' diving reception on the sideline, good for 28 yards down to the 3, had set up the TD.
"Nick Marras' catch, when he laid out for it, I thought that was probably one of the biggest plays of the game," Cougars coach Bill Bellecomo said.
Vernon Hills got one more score before the half ended, as on its next possession, Hull ran it in from the 3 with 28 seconds left. Hull completed 3 passes for 30 yards on the 14-play, 82-yard drive that lengthened the lead to 21-3.
Vernon Hills' defense holds those leads.
"The offensive (plan) for this game was to come out strong," Hull said after completing 15 of 22 passes for 191 yards and not turning the ball over. "That's exactly what we did. I think that definitely helped."
Sycamore, playing in front of a huge home crowd, didn't go quietly. Vernon Hills needed a strip by all-state linebacker Chick Smith at the 1, after a short reception, and fumble recovery by Rosenstock to thwart one drive in the third quarter. In the fourth, the Spartans got within 21-10 on Ty Sulaver's 5-yard TD pass to Jordan Tolzin (9 receptions, 68 yards).
Chris Mariella intercepted Sulaver with four minutes left. But despite Vernon Hills being in a prevent defense, Sulaver connected with tight end Donovan Smith from 30 yards out with 1:20 left. The PAT pass failed, however, and Quinn Geren recovered the onside kick, sending the Cougars into victory formation.
"It was crazy," said Rosenstock, who played with his right hand wrapped after requiring several stitches to sew up his middle finger that he ripped open against Marian Central last week. "We got a little scared there, but we held it together. The offense did a great job in the first half putting points up."
"Kudos to (Sycamore)," Smith said. "They're a very good team. Very good quarterback. Very good O-line. Very good wide receivers. We were destined to give up a point, but we're going to the state finals. Which is very nice."
At game's end, a fired-up Bellecomo addressed his players and asked a rhetorical question, as some media during the week had questioned Vernon Hills' ability.
"Who are these guys?" said Bellecomo, looking at his team. "These guys are going to the championship game."
"That's it," said Brancato, smiling. "We're Vernon Hills."