WW South makes playoff return official
Wheaton Warrenville South wide receiver Tiwan Smith had quite a memorable senior homecoming football game Friday.
Mostly during the day's school pep assembly, players and students found out the starting time against Lake Park was moved up to 5 p.m. to beat predicted thunderstorms. The already 5 p.m. sophomore game was moved to Lake Park.
"I wasn't expecting to get moved up. I was really expecting to get a reschedule," Smith said. "It was shocking to the fans and everybody. We still just came out, played our hardest and the fans eventually came and supported us all the way through."
By the time fans arrived as usual, Smith and the Tigers put on quite a show.
Smith's back-to-back touchdown receptions of 40 and 56 yards from quarterback Noah Henkel in the second quarter helped the Tigers pull away in their 24-9 DuKane Conference victory in Wheaton.
"It actually feels really good coming out here and scoring in front of a big crowd, especially for a 5 o'clock game," Smith said. "Scoring, it's a great feeling, but it's really not about the touchdowns. It's about getting the team ahead and making sure we secure the W."
Even sweeter for the Tigers (6-1, 4-1 in DuKane) was clinching their first berth to the state playoffs since 2014. The result also eliminated the Lancers (2-5, 1-4) from playoff trips in consecutive seasons.
"An old story for me, but a new story for them. They've never been there (in the playoffs)," said long-time WW South coach Ron Muhitch. "We've been trying to talk them into doing it here under our home crowd. And they responded eventually, got the lead and hung onto it. Defensively, we're still playing pretty well."
Before Smith's touchdowns, the Tigers clung to a 3-2 lead amid stifling defenses. The Tigers' Jack Olsen booted a 48-yard field goal in the first quarter but later as punter in the second quarter, a snap from the 23 went well over his head. The Lancers' Isaac Moore tackled Olsen trying to escape the end zone for a safety.
With 1:42 left until halftime, Smith first scored on the first play after Chase Keating's punt deflection for in a 10-yarder to the Lancers' 40. After another three-and-out, Smith struck again as he got past and outran the secondary 1:01 before halftime.
Before Smith's only two catches, the Tigers had only 41 yards of offense. They finished with eight first downs.
"Early in the game I think defensively our kids were doing an incredible job and offensively we were doing fine," Lake Park coach Chris Roll said. "When you give a confident team more opportunities, then they get their confidence back. Obviously once they got that first (TD), they played a really good rest of the game."
Smith, now with 3 TDs this season, leads the Tigers with 19 receptions and 391 receiving yards. In the third quarter Haw caught a 34-yard receiver option pass from Matt Brennan off a reverse with receiver Cedric Rowzee. Prince Lankah scored from the 7 two plays later.
"We've got some studs. We've got some playmakers on the outside," Henkel said. "I have trust in all of them, but Tiwan, that's my dude. I know if I need to throw one up, he's going to get it. I have ultimate trust in him. He's got great hands."
Lake Park scored the final touchdown with 5:34 remaining on a 37-yard TD pass from sophomore quarterback Nathanael Merchant in his second varsity start to junior Armoni Gilford.
Olsen, who now has 14 field goals, missed two later attempts of 53 and 44 yards in the fourth.
This also was the fourth game in which the Tigers held an opponent to single digits, including two shutouts even without injured starters Jake Stransky and Nazri Khayal.
Junior linebacker Michael Rogers, starting again for Stransky, had two interceptions and Rowzee another to give the Tigers 22 turnovers on the season and a plus-20 turnover ratio.
"The second one, I missed one diving a few plays before and then I just felt great to get (another)," said Rogers, now with three picks.
"We're kind of in a next-man up mentality (with injuries). We just knew we could trust everyone to make a play when it counts.
Muhitch said he appreciated Lake Park's willingness to switch game times and sites. Afterward, Roll stressed to his players about finishing on a winning note against Geneva and St. Charles East.
"We play a nine-game playoff (in the regular season) and you either make it or you don't," Roll said. "The only (playoff) team that gets to end with a win is the state champion. We can actually finish with two wins, which will put a lot of spirit back into the kids."