Grayslake Central nabs 1st playoff win since 2010
BELVIDERE -- Grayslake Central's juniors and seniors could have abandoned ship after witnessing a 1-8 season as freshmen and sophomores.
They could have done it again after COVID-19 put in danger the following season.
But instead they stayed the course, and now they were the life and blood of the Rams' program that third-year coach Mike Maloney hopes just experienced a major breakthrough.
Central overcame an early two-score deficit to post only its school's third playoff win, defeating Belvidere North 27-22 Friday in the Class 6A playoffs.
It is Grayslake Central's first playoff victory since 2010. The No. 9-seeded Rams (8-2) host No. 1 Cary-Grove (10-0) next week.
"I think the top feeling I have is gratitude and pride and love, especially for our senior class," Maloney said. "Three years ago we took over this program, I hired some amazing assistants that make my job easier ... and they got our kids to believe. We're building a program the right way, the hard way, through adversity, all with my vision on this -- playoff success -- without them knowing what that feels like.
"It is a gratifying feeling for them to experience this and having the satisfaction of knowing their hard work paid off."
Perhaps all that adversity played a role in a game when the Rams (8-2) had plenty go against them early.
North (7-3) led 15-6 with 9:07 left in the first half following touchdown runs of 47 and 31 yards from Nico Bertolino, who wound up with 125 yards on just seven carries.
But a Central offense that averaged 36.4 points per game didn't panic and began to turn to its biggest playmakers on its next drive.
After driving down to the Blue Thunder 18, Central faced fourth-and-7 from the 23. Going into the wind, quarterback Darryl Overstreet threw a dart to Kaiden Miller for a 23-yard touchdown strike to make it 15-13 with 5:09 to play in the opening half.
"That ball we've been working on it all year and even the last two years," said Overstreet, a senior who was 8-of-13 passing for 64 yards on a tough day to throw. "Everything felt normal. I didn't put any extra mustard on it or anything. I just got it to where it needed to go.
"It means a lot to us. Our group of seniors have put in so much work since freshman year. Our goal our sophomore year we were going to change this program no matter who stays or leaves. We've shown that we can overcome everything. It means everything to us."
That was the first of three scoring connections between those two players. They also connected just 25 seconds before halftime on a four-yard score to give the Rams a 20-15 lead going into the break. That was a before a mammoth 6-yard score on third and goal with 6:37 left in the game, making it 27-15. That last touchdown closed a 7:30 drive.
Miller contributed on every score as he finished with 122 yards rushing on 15 carries and 43 yards receiving on five catches.
"We're usually a good passing team, but we were on the ground a lot running the ball," Miller said. "That's the defense they were giving us. We used it to our benefit and ran the ball."
The Blue Thunder had one final threat, scoring quickly on a 7-yard run from quarterback Mason Weckler (20 carries, 101 yards) with 4:56 left to make it 27-22. North even forced Central into fourth down from the Rams' own 32 with 2:18 remaining.
However, on a huge call going into a stiff wind, Maloney decided to go for it and drew a pass interference penalty.
That was followed by three runs for 11 yards as the Rams bled the clock to zero in order to celebrate the big win and get a berth in the second round.
"It wasn't really nerves, it was trying to give us the best chance to win," Maloney said of the decision to go for it. "My job is to make decisions that give us the best chance to win. Calculated risks. I believe in our guys."