Lakes juniors Direll Clark and John Gomulka were not afraid to admit their nerves were a bit frayed with a minute and 49 seconds to play Friday night.
Visiting Rolling Meadows had just taken a 4-point lead on the fifth touchdown pass of the Class 6A first-round playoff game by junior quarterback Jack Milas. And the ground-based Eagles were now 73 long yards from the end zone.
But Clark and Gomulka were able to control their nervousness when it mattered most. Gomulka threw a tight end reverse pass of 50 yards to Justin Bergeron to set up Clark's 9-yard touchdown run with 42 seconds left that gave fifth-seed Lakes (8-2) a wild 38-35 victory at Polley Field in Lake Villa.
"I was nervous and thinking, 'We have to score, we have to score,'" said Clark, whose 289 yards on 39 carries broke the school record of 260 yards he set earlier this year against Wauconda. "It was so crazy."
The Eagles overcame 409 yards passing by Milas and 14 catches for 268 yards by Artie Checchin to win just the second playoff game in their brief history. They will travel to Fox Lake next week to face No. 13 Grant (7-3), which beat No. 4 Antioch 19-7.
"We didn't think about it that much but we know we can compete with anyone," Gomulka said of beating a Meadows team which has played 7A and 8A competition all season. "We weren't really worried about that."
Gomulka had much bigger concerns after No. 12 Meadows (6-4) had taken a 35-31 lead on Milas' 21-yard touchdown pass to Austin Reed at 1:54. Gomulka hadn't thrown a pass since he was a second-string freshman quarterback and was being asked to execute a play put in just this week as Lakes took over at its own 27.
Gomulka got the ball on a reverse and fired downfield. Bergeron made a leaping catch over a defender and suddenly Lakes was in business at the Meadows' 23.
"If they don't get the reverse pass I don't like their chances, but (Gomulka) threw a good ball and (Bergeron) made a good play on it," said Meadows coach Matt Mishler.
"It worked pretty well," Gomulka said with a smile. "I was really nervous. When they called it I thought, 'OK, here we go.' All the credit goes to Justin and O-line blocked great."
Lakes overcame a holding penalty as Chris Hoffman hit A.J. Goggin for 11 yards. Clark covered the last 20 yards on three runs behind Isaac Soto, Dillon Falotico, Ty Summers, Dan Pawlak and Mike Forney.
"They were pushing the D-line back and doing awesome," Clark said after Lakes finished with 461 total yards. "I have to give the O-line props."
Hoffman threw touchdown passes of 13 yards to Bergeron and 5 yards to Gomulka on fourth down and Andrew Spencer picked up a punt off the ground and raced 41 yards for a score to give Lakes a 21-7 lead 5:06 before halftime.
But Milas got rolling and threw touchdown passes of 9 yards to John Burkiewicz and 21 and 90 yards to Checchin to give Meadows its first lead at 28-24 with 17 seconds left in the third quarter.
"I just got in a groove and made sure I threw the ball better than I was in the beginning," Milas said.
Lakes answered to lead 31-28 on a 14-running play, 87-yard drive that took 6:55 as Clark scored from 10 yards with 5:17 left. Checchin, who also caught the first touchdown pass from Milas, made three grabs on a go-ahead 78-yard drive.
But Meadows' last-ditch march from its 20 with three timeouts ended at the Lakes 45 when Milas was hit as he threw and the ball was batted away at the 15.
"I thought (Reed's touchdown) would be the turning point and we were going to win it," Milas said. "But they made a good play and that's how it goes."