Stevenson's happy to return with a 'W'
The four-hour bus ride from Lake County to western Michigan wasn't too bad.
Rush hour traffic on Saturday morning wasn't a factor, and the trip was broken up with a stop for sandwiches and stretching.
The ride home for the Stevenson football team was even better.
The Patriots, who needed a Week 2 game after its contract with Homewood-Flossmoor wasn't renewed, searched for opponents in Illinois, southern Wisconsin and northern Indiana. Nothing worked until they found Muskegon, a perennial state power in Michigan.
On Saturday, Stevenson trekked east and then north up the west side of Michigan along the lake to take on the Big Reds, the No. 2 team in the state.
The Patriots represented Illinois well. Stevenson escaped Muskegon with a thrilling 38-35 victory that wasn't secured until the final seconds.
Stevenson, which got a touchdown from running back Matt Korinek with 57 seconds left and then watched Muskegon miss on a 27-yard field goal that would have tied the game as time expired, is now 1-1 after a disappointing 28-20 loss to Palatine in Week 1.
"The bus ride back is going to be even better. We're feeling really good right now," Stevenson coach Bill McNamara said after the game. "The fans got a treat. That game could have gone either way. What a quality win for the Patriots.
"This is a memory our kids are going to talk about for the rest of their lives, just with the environment and the type of game it was."
The game didn't start out so well for the Patriots. They fell behind 14-0 right away to a Muskegon team that, according to McNamara, is loaded with Division I recruits, including quarterback Kalil Pimpleton, a Virginia Tech commit.
By the end of the first quarter, Stevenson was down 21-7.
"We just didn't start out very well at all," McNamara said. "But then we got it going in the second quarter."
Quarterback Aiden O'Connell got hot for the Patriots, and quickly erased the deficit. He picked apart the Muskegon defense and pulled Stevenson to a 28-28 tie just before halftime.
Stevenson kicker Jack Worwa put the finishing touches on the first-half rally by hitting a 25-yard field goal before time expired. That gave the Patriots a 31-28 halftime lead.
After a scoreless third quarter, Muskegon scored a touchdown with about five minutes left to go up 35-31 but then Korinek (8 carries, 70 yards) scored with 50 seconds left to give Stevenson what turned out to be the lead for good.
The Patriots breathed a sigh of relief as Muskegon's last-second field goal attempt was off target.
"It was a crazy game," McNamara said. "We just played a little better at the end. Our offense moved the ball. We had about 540 yards of offense. And our defense got 3 turnovers to help slow them down, which was important because they had a lot of weapons on the field."
O'Connell was quite the weapon for Stevenson.
He completed 36-of-51 passes for 440 yards and 4 touchdowns, and connected with eight different receivers.
Henry Marchese (13 receptions, 140 yards, 3 touchdowns) and Anthony Sibo (10 receptions, 150 yards, 1 touchdown) were O'Connell's favorite targets.
"The kid was just incredible," McNamara said of O'Connell. "He's the point guard of our offense. He did a great job of distributing the ball for us. Our line also did a great job of protecting him. We played on grass and Aiden was totally clean after the game. Not a single grass stain on his uniform."
McNamara said his team was totally on point after recovering from the slow start.
"We treated this as a business trip," McNamara said. "We needed this. It was a redemption week for us. And a game against a very good team. (Muskegon) wanted a game against a good team, and so did we.
"It's everyone's goal in the state of Illinois to take a long bus ride to Champaign to play a very good team in the state championship. Hopefully, this was a nice preparation for us."