It was a special night for Vernon Hills' Berktold
For four years, it has been a dream.
But the real thing is something that Anthony Berktold will remember for a lifetime.
"It's been Anthony's dream to play in a football game," Vernon Hills coach Jay Czarnecki said. "He's talked and talked about it for four years."
Berktold, a senior at Vernon Hills, has been the manager of the football team there for four years.
At the Cougars' final home game of the season last Friday, Senior Night, Berktold saw his dream become a reality as he went from manager to player, complete with uniform, pads and helmet. And, oh yeah, a play specifically designed for him.
Berktold, who is autistic with ADHD, was given the opportunity to score a touchdown in Vernon Hills' Week 8 Central Suburban League game against visiting Maine East. Czarnecki came up with a plan for Berktold's big moment and the athletic directors, coaching staffs and players from both schools were all in.
Maine East, which received the opening kickoff, was allowed by the Cougars to return the kickoff for an uncontested touchdown.
Then, it was the Cougars' turn.
When Vernon Hills got the ball off the ensuing kickoff and settled in at its 20-yard line, Berktold took the field. The Cougars ran a reverse that they had been practicing with Berktold all week, and Berktold sprinted 80 yards for a touchdown.
It was the first of many touchdowns for the Cougars, who wound up cruising to a 57-6 victory, but definitely the most special.
"He just loved it, he was so excited," Heidi Berktold said of her son Anthony, who was diagnosed as autistic at age 3. "It was the best night of his life. He was laughing it up, he was having so much fun. I'm telling you, (playing football, scoring touchdowns) would never get old for him.
"When the game was over, Anthony didn't want to leave the stadium. He kept asking me if he could keep everything, like the pads and the helmet. (Laughing) He was loving it. It was such a big deal for him."
Big deal or not, Berktold was confident he could get the job done.
"He's been dropping hints for a long time about how he could help us," Czarnecki said. "When we're struggling, Anthony always offers to play. He's always got opinions on what plays we should run. We finally got smart and took him up on it."
Czarnecki says that Maine East couldn't have been more gracious or cooperative in accommodating the Cougars' plan. Maine East coach Robert Winkel is a special-education teacher and loved the idea.
"Everyone at Maine East was so great," Czarnecki said. "I can't say enough about them. What a class school and organization. Their coaches just told us how happy they were to be a part of it."
And so were the Cougars, of course.
As Berktold headed to the end zone, his teammates followed from the sidelines and swarmed him once he scored. And the stands erupted.
"It was a roaring crowd for Anthony. It was such a great moment," Czarnecki said. "Our kids really wanted to do something special for Anthony and everyone was into it.
"When he scored and everyone was celebrating with him, you could just see (the happiness) in his eyes. He was on cloud nine."
All the hubbub must have gotten Berktold's appetite up.
One thing he has often done over the years as manager is get a snack at halftime. Touchdown or not, this game was not about to be an exception.
"I saw Anthony (at halftime) and it was so funny because there he was eating a slice of pizza," Czarnecki said with a laugh. "I'm like, 'Anthony, you can't do that, you're a player now.' It was just a great night. A lot of fun for everyone."
Fitting ending: It's been a rough season for Vernon Hills, which will not qualify for the playoffs for the second straight year, just two seasons after making it to the Class 5A state championship game.
The 3-5 Cougars have dealt with a plethora of injuries and also lost head coach Bill Bellecomo to a season-ending health condition. Bellecomo had emergency heart surgery about a month ago that forced him to stay in bed for much of the season.
Capping a difficult season with the feel-good moment for manager Anthony Berktold in the Maine East game last week was just what the Cougars needed.
"In a year where nothing was easy, nothing was normal, it was neat to see that moment with Anthony play out the way it did," said Vernon Hills coach Jay Czarnecki, who has filled in for Bellecomo as interim coach. "You often talk about overcoming adversity in sports but usually you're talking about coming back from a loss. But our kids have dealt with plenty of real-life adversity this season, too."
Hats off: There's no panic at Stevenson.
The Patriots aren't going to throw the baby out with the bath water, not going to panic and change anything about their offense because they were shut down by Warren last week.
Sure, the Patriots were averaging 34.6 points per game headed into their Week 8 showdown with Warren that had the North Suburban Conference championship on the line.
But Stevenson coach Josh Hjorth says that shutout is more of a tribute to Warren and its amazing defense, than a reflection of any real trouble with his offense.
"It's a credit to Warren, and we really respect them," Hjorth said. "They've got one heck of a defense and they just beat us up front. They've got some really big dudes this season."
Warren, which boasts multiple defensive linemen who are 250 pounds or more and multiple defensive linemen with Division I offers, has destroyed many quality teams this season and has pitched five shutouts in eight games. The Blue Devils are allowing 5.9 points per game.
Hjorth believes Warren could make a legitimate run at a state title. Then again, he also believes Class 8A could be wide open.
"A lot of people argue that there are 15 or 16 teams in the state that could make a run (at the 8A championship)," Hjorth said. "Someone was telling me that there could be 22 Class 8A teams in the playoffs with records of 7-2 or better. That's incredible. It's going to be a great field."
Tough defense, II: Like Warren, Stevenson has also had a tough defense this season.
The Patriots are yielding only 10 points per game, second-fewest in the North Suburban Conference after Warren.
Stevenson head coach Josh Hjorth gives a lot of credit to his four senior linebackers, David Pentek, Michael D'Angelo, Maema Njongmeta and Danny Hynes.
"Against Warren, our defense really gave up only 7 (of Warren's 21 points)," Hjorth said. "Two of Warren's touchdowns came off our own turnovers. Our defense really played well and has been playing well all season. Especially our linebackers. They're all over the place. They just really trust each other and they love playing the game together."
Njongmeta, who first started playing football as a freshman, is Stevenson's most sought-after defender. He has multiple college scholarship offers, from Northern Illinois, Iowa State, Rice, Toledo, and he is also generating interest from Big Ten schools.
Njongmeta will decide where he continues his football career once the season ends.
"It's been great for Maema, going from never playing the game to four years later being wanted by schools all over the country," Hjorth said. "He just needs to find the right fit for him."
Rough loss: This time, it seemed like the outcome would be different.
Lakes has lost only three conference games over the last eight years.
But all three of them have been to Antioch.
The Eagles thought this year was going to be different. They thought they had Antioch this time.
On Friday, Lakes boasted a 24-7 lead in the second quarter and was feeling good.
But Antioch scored 36 unanswered points to come from behind for the victory, preserve its undefeated season and cinch the Northern Lake County Conference title.
Both Antioch and Lakes were undefeated (5-0) in league play heading into the game.
"We're trying to get past it," Lakes coach Jordan Eder said of the disappointment. "Obviously, it's tough. And for a couple of days, our kids were pretty upset. But they know they fought hard. They hung right there. We told the kids before the game, 'Let's make a statement,' and they almost did in a very realistic playoff game setting.
"We just had a couple of unfortunate plays and that game really showed us the importance of every single rep."
Lakes allowed an Antioch kickoff return for a touchdown and had a costly turnover that aided in the Sequoits' comeback.
An A for D'Lo: Antioch boasts the stingiest defense in the Northern Lake County Conference at 9.1 points per game.
But just like every other team in the league, even the Sequoits had a tough time stopping Lakes running back D'Lo Hardy.
Hardy, frequently the focus of the opposing defense, rushed for 135 yard and a touchdown against Antioch last week.
"For him to do that against a defense like Antioch, it shows that when our offensive line is playing well, D'Lo is pretty special," Lakes coach Jordan Eder said. "We get so much production out of D'Lo, as a running back and we can put him at wide receiver, and he plays defense for us. It takes a lot out of him, but he's in great shape and he leaves it all out there."