What would have been a crying shame -- a 62-mile drive to Maywood followed by a loss to a fellow hard-luck team -- ended in a tears-of-joy moment for Round Lake football player Brandon Kisiel.
"I'm just so happy we won," said Kisiel, a junior running back/safety, holding back tears after Round Lake rallied in the fourth quarter to beat host Proviso East 34-26 on Saturday.
Kisiel was a big reason why the Panthers won their season opener. In his varsity debut, he rushed for 3 touchdowns, including two in the final quarter, and also came up with a critical fumble recovery in the fourth, as Round Lake matched its win total from each of the previous two seasons.
Anthony Tellez was equally clutch for the Panthers. The 6-foot, 210-pound senior rushed 30 times for a touchdown and 195 yards, a career best for the three-year varsity player.
"One more banana at halftime and he would have gotten 200 (yards)," Round Lake coach Cristo Garza said with a laugh.
"I was leaving everything out on the field and playing hard," said Tellez, who several times carried defenders on his back while plowing ahead for yards.
One of those runs came on a 12-yard gain during the Panthers' go-ahead scoring drive.
"You just got to run hard," said Tellez, who had 152 rushing yards on 19 carries in the first half.
"Proud of him," Kisiel, who rushed 16 times for 66 yards, said of his teammate. "He's just an amazing runner."
Proviso East, which hasn't won a game since its 2014 season opener against Maine West (27 straight losses), took a 26-20 lead into the fourth quarter. The Pirates built their advantage, in part, thanks to a pair of big plays: a 40-yard touchdown pass from Kurt Sturghill (14-of-20 passing, 115 yards) to Kewon Johnson on the game's second play from scrimmage and Timothy Banks' 27-yard TD return of a fumbled kickoff by Round Lake in the final seconds of the first half.
The Pirates also didn't commit a turnover through three quarters.
"We needed a (defensive) play," Garza said. "I called timeout and said, 'Guys, we need it.' The next play we got a turnover."
Round Lake senior defensive back Julio Pacheco stripped the ball from a Proviso East wide receiver, and Kisiel pounced on the football, giving the Panthers a first down at their own 44 with 9:03 left in the fourth. Proviso East had taken the lead on Sturghill's 2-yard touchdown pass to Kiante Tyler late in the third, snapping a 20-20 halftime tie.
The Panthers capitalized on the Proviso East turnover when Kisiel, who scored from 6 yards out in the first quarter, carried the ball into the end zone from 1 yard out with 6:15 left. Manny Toscano's PAT kick gave the Panthers a 27-26 lead.
Kisiel iced the game by breaking free for a 25-yard TD run on fourth-and-1 with 1:21 to go.
"It's overwhelming," Tellez said of the victory.
Round Lake also got touchdown runs from Tellez (6 yards) and quarterback Alex Larson (22 yards). Panthers defensive back Justin Langwinski recovered another Proviso East fumble in the final minute.
"We told the guys, 'We've worked. Now it's time for it to pay off,' " Garza said. "I think we showed in the third and fourth quarters some of the hard work we've done. Everybody preaches conditioning, conditioning, but these kids really bought into it."
Kisiel's postgame emotions and his wide-smiling teammates were proof of that.