Lake Zurich's new direction leads to DeKalb
Lake Zurich's football program needed an icy slap harder than what even Saturday's whipping snow could provide.
Twelve months ago, Bears were knocked out cold, rocked by a hazing scandal.
Then along came Luke Mertens to start the revival. Hired away from Lakes in late April to be the new head coach, he scurried to install a new offense, teach new terminology, put together a staff and learn about his players, while they learned about him.
So it seemed surreal Saturday. Joey Stutzman scored the go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter, Anthony Mangano thwarted visiting Mt. Carmel's last-minute drive with an interception near the end zone, and Lake Zurich won its state semifinal 14-7.
"We've grown as a program," Mangano said. "When Coach Mertens came here, there were questions. We wanted to know what was going to happen."
What happens next is that No. 3 Lake Zurich (13-0) will play No. 4 Batavia (12-1) for the Class 7A state championship at 4 p.m. next Saturday at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb. It will be the Bears' fifth time playing in the state game and first since 2013.
"That was the dream and mission (at the beginning of the season)," senior offensive tackle Riley Pemstein said of getting to state. "We knew we had amazing players. We knew it was going to take a lot."
Against 12-time state champ and 18th-seeded Mt. Carmel (9-4), it took battling through conditions that stifled the Bears' vaunted passing game. Quarterback Evan Lewandowski, who this week was named all-state, completed just 5 of 18 passes for 77 yards, 45 coming on a touchdown pass to Payton Powell to open the scoring in the second quarter. Bears receivers dropped three passes.
"It was really tough," Powell said. "It started out snowing -- so it's cold already -- and then it turned to rain, which just made everything wet. It was cold the rest of the game. The ball was slippery."
Lewandowski wasn't blaming the weather for his fourth-quarter interception that could have proved costly. Leading by the eventual final score, Lake Zurich called a pass play on third-and-2 from its own 30 with three minutes left. Lewandowski ran what Mertens called a "sprint-out, throwback." Lewandowski rolled right, then threw left, against the wind. Caravan defensive back Davion Brooks intercepted the ball, giving the visitors first down at the Bears 37.
"It's one of those plays where if it goes (well), I'm the smartest guy in the world," Mertens said. "If the play doesn't go (well), it's 'What is he doing? He's an idiot.' But that's part of football. We haven't shown (that play) all year. You have to run that play in those situations."
It was just the fourth interception Lewandowski has thrown all season.
"I didn't see No. 6 (Brooks) behind the line," Lewandowski said. "I left (the pass) short, too."
Mt. Carmel picked up a first down on fourth-and-1 and advanced the ball to the 20. But on third-and-4, Mangano intercepted quarterback Radomir Premovic at the 5 with 26 seconds left.
"We knew that they were going to throw play-action there," said Mangano, whose interception was his sixth of the season. "I saw the play develop, I saw (the QB) scramble, and I saw my receiver right by me. (The QB's) eyes immediately went to that receiver. I was like, 'It's coming here.' When he released the ball, I made a good break on it. I just caught it, cradled it and held it as hard as I could."
Lewandowski could only smile from the sideline.
"I knew the defense would stop them," Lewandowski said. "All year they've been coming up big for us. I had no doubt in my mind that they were stopping them."
Stutzman finished with 153 rushing yards on 23 carries running behind a line that included Pemstein, Yianni Manousaridis, Andrew Miller, Spencer Bacon, Jackson Farsalas and Ian Fitzgerald. Linebacker Jack Sanborn, who was named all-state this week for the second year in a row, became Lake Zurich's all-time leader in tackles.
"It goes back to the Warren game (in Week 5)," said Mertens, whose team survived a Hail Mary at the end of regulation to beat the Blue Devils in overtime. "Our kids have had amazing moxie in crazy situations. There doesn't seem to be a massive amount of panic. Which is a credit to them."
A program that had an uncertain future a year ago has been revived.
"There's so much to this storyline," said Mertens, shaking his head. "It's amazing."