Willowbrook senior Nick Sabatino hoped his longest touchdown reception this football season Saturday would be the game changer.
Just before halftime, Sabatino's 57-yard connection with quarterback John Taylor aided by Martique Barksdale's downfield block brought the underdog Warriors to within 7 points in their Class 6A quarterfinal matchup at defending champion Prairie Ridge.
"It was awesome. I thought it was us coming back right there, and then they starting pulling away again," Sabatino said.
After scoring at least three 3 TDs every game this season, the Warriors were held scoreless the rest of the way and lost 42-7 in Crystal Lake.
The Warriors (10-2) reached the state quarterfinals in back-to-back seasons for the first time since their only semifinal trips in 1974 and 1975 -- the first two years of the IHSA playoffs. This year's team also captured its first West Suburban Gold title and first outright conference title since 1982.
"This is a group that has done things nobody else ever has," Willowbrook coach Nick Hildreth said.
"They've accomplished a lot and set the bar high and kind of changed what the expectations are for our program. I hope the younger guys see the process and what it takes to get to that point and how abruptly it can stop if you don't take care of business."
The Wolves (12-0) extended their winning streak to 26 straight as Iowa-bound quarterback Samson Evans rushed for 4 TDs and 133 yards on 30 carries while throwing just three times.
The triple-option offense gained 352 of its 407 total offensive yards from 68 rushes, starting with a 16-rush, 65-yard TD drive for its first possession.
"That's what our (offensive) game should look like. Really happy offensively, defensively," Prairie Ridge coach Chris Schremp said. "We found some things that we thought we could exploit and they were there with our option. We were able to keep the chains moving."
On their first two drives the Wolves were 8 for 9 on third-down conversions. The opening drive was sustained by Evans' 15-yard carry on fourth-and-3 to the 32-yard line.
"We've never seen that (triple option) before. It was kind hard to replicate that (in practice)," Willowbrook senior linebacker Brandon Loth said. "Hats off to them. I think they run it to perfection almost. Samson, all of their linemen do a (heck) of a job."
Evans also can pass effectively. His first completion on third-and-8 found a wide-open Ethan Kirchberg in the slot for a 16-yard TD and 14-0 lead.
Getting the ball at their 33 after Sabatino's TD 1:11 before halftime, the Wolves scored with 2.6 seconds left after 6-foot-2 Cooper Tomlin made a terrific 39-yard catch in traffic at the 4.
With 4.3 seconds left and no timeouts at the 3, Evans ran option left and scored for a 21-7 advantage.
"We give up a big play that went through our hands. And it cost us," Hildreth said. "Going into the half 14-7, we would have been in a little better shape, but two scores is a lot the way they run their offense."
Schremp was just as pleased by his defense, which held Willowbrook to 178 yards. The Warriors also were hurt by three lost fumbles and untimely penalties.
Taylor passed for 127 yards. Senior two-way starter Jack Jessen rushed for 77 yards to finish the greatest rushing season in Willowbrook history unofficially at 2,053 yards, shattering his 2016 record of 1,671.
Jessen, who will wrestle at Northwestern, temporarily left the game with 9:45 left in the third quarter after injuring his left ankle while being tackled by Justin Mikolajczewski. Iowa-bound 6-4 two-way lineman Jeff Jenkins recovered a fumble at the 30 and Evans soon had an 8-yard TD run for a 28-7 advantage.
Jessen first returned at middle linebacker and at running back for the Warriors' final possession in the final three minutes.
"The Friday night lights. I think that's what I'm going to miss the most about (football)," Jessen said. "There was no way I was going to sit out. If I was going to go to go out, I was going to go out on my terms."
Afterward, the seniors stood along the back line of the end zone while younger teammates congratulated and consoled them.
Sabatino recalled his days of playing in the Villa Park Warriors youth football with fellow seniors Taylor, Loth and Chris Diaz.
"I hope we show these younger guys you can do anything you put your mind to," Sabatino said. "Every game that we've played, people have doubted us, thinking we can't do it, and we can do it."