Wheaton Academy holds off Guerin

 
By Jeff Smith
Daily Herald Correspondent
Updated 9/11/2015 11:52 PM

Wheaton Academy missed the IHSA state football playoffs by the narrowest of margins in 2014. The Warriors were playoff eligible with a 5-4 record but were the first team on the outside looking in at a postseason bid, losing a tiebreaker to Aurora Christian for the final spot in the playoffs due to strength of schedule.

After such a disappointing conclusion to last season, Wheaton Academy's No. 1 goal for 2015 is readily apparent.

 

"Our primary motivation all season is not to let there be any doubt about us going to the playoffs this time," coach Brad Thornton said.

The Warriors moved another step closer to a playoff berth Friday night, outlasting Guerin Prep 28-26 in a tense Metro Suburban Conference crossover game in West Chicago. Wheaton Academy's victory in its home opener at Performance Trust Field improved its record to 3-0 and left the team three wins away from a guaranteed spot in the postseason heading into a visit to Chicago Christian on Sept. 18.

"Our goal is to make the playoffs with no doubts at all," running back Chase Martin said. "We want to go 6-3 or better. That's what we worked all offseason for."

Guerin (2-1) made Wheaton Academy earn the victory after the Warriors had dispatched Walther Christian and Bradley Tech by a combined 61 points in their first two games. The difference was a missed extra point after a potential game-tying 63-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Richie Zacharias to wideout Keith Franklin with 11 seconds remaining in the third quarter made it 21-20 Wheaton Academy. The Warriors stretched their lead to 28-20 on a 27-yard TD strike from quarterback David Thrasher to wide receiver Steven Sellers with 9:51 left in the game. In a game filled with clutch big plays, Zacharias connected down the sideline with Felix King for an 82-yard touchdown pass that drew the Crusaders within 28-26 with 9:26 to go, but Wheaton Academy broke up a game-tying pass on the 2-point conversion attempt to preserve its lead.

After stopping Wheaton Academy on downs on the ensuing possession, Guerin drove to the Warriors' 46-yard line before its drive stalled. Wheaton Academy then ran out the last 3:54 of the game behind Martin, who bulled his way through Guerin's three-man defensive front for 45 yards on the last possession. The Warriors were also aided by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty whistled on the Crusaders at the end of a play where Thrasher recovered his own fumble. The penalty gave Wheaton Academy a first down that kept the drive alive and was one of 83 yards in penalties called on Guerin in the second half.

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"I've never seen a group of officials so unprofessional in a high school football game before tonight," said Guerin coach Glen Kozlowski, pointing to a controversial unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the first quarter on defensive tackle Vinnie Caeti in which officials kicked him out of the game. Caeti's absence left a large void in the middle of Guerin's defensive front that Wheaton exploited with Martin, a bruising fullback who racked up 124 yards, mostly running north-south.

"I take nothing away from Wheaton. Their kids played a heck of a game. Both teams played their guts out, but the officials were so incompetent. How do you call that (unsportsmanlike conduct) penalty at the end of a hard-fought game like that? They called things so tight on them. These are kids. Let the kids play, especially when the outcome of the game is on the line. It was clear they had an agenda against us and they didn't do their job. That's on them."

The Warriors never trailed, jumping ahead 7-0 less than two minutes into the game on a 53-yard strike by Thrasher (147 yards, 2 passing TDs and 1 rushing TD). But Wheaton Academy could never shake Guerin, either. Felix returned the ensuing kickoff 70 yards untouched to even the score at 7-7. After the Warriors regained the lead, Guerin tied it midway through the second quarter on a 33-yard TD pass that Zacharias (279 yards, 3 TDs) lofted high into the corner of the end zone to the 6-foot-4 Franklin (7 receptions, 170 yards, 2 TDs). Thrasher's 4-yard TD run propelled Wheaton Academy in front for good 21-14 late in the third quarter.

The Warriors executed their defensive game plan to force Guerin to the air, holding Crusaders tailback Jaylon White to just 5 yards on 9 carries behind a swarming defense led by Martin, Mitch Brunner and Harrison Taylor.

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