Wheaton Academy falls in playoff opener
COAL CITY -- The final score says second-seeded Coal City breezed past No. 15 Wheaton Academy in Friday night's Class 4A opener, but that was not really the case, at least not for the first half.
After a scoreless first quarter the Warriors trailed just 8-0 late in the first half and drove inside the Coalers' 10-yard line with just over a minute left in the second quarter. But that's when things turned around in a hurry and the powerful Coalers took off on their way to a 37-0 win, their sixth shutout and ninth win in a row.
Wheaton Academy senior quarterback Ben Thorson got hit hard by a swarm of Coalers defenders on a third-down run and dropped at the 11-yard line. He was replaced by sophomore Shane Baumgarten, who handed off to Cristian Carstens for a 3-yard run to the 8, and then the Warriors missed a 25-yard field goal just wide right to leave the score at 8-0.
Coal City (9-1) promptly picked up 45 yards on the next play on a run by Connor Skubic, and seven plays later -- with just 17.4 seconds left in the half -- scored a touchdown on a 25-yard pass from Payton Hutchings to Gio Ferrara to make it 16-0 at the half.
With Thorson lost for the remainder of the game while under the concussion protocol. Coal City marched 76 yards on 14 plays to open the third quarter and added two more touchdowns for a 37-0 lead after three quarters of play.
"It's over but I feel like this year and tonight we showed we have a good team," Warriors senior defensive back/wide receiver Gerald Blackmon said. "We competed and it was exciting out there and I'm grateful I got to play in this game and with these guys."
But even Blackmon, who had two catches on offense and several tackles on defense, was stunned with how quickly the game got away.
"It's crazy, we were right there," he said. "But it's tough to do it without your first-string quarterback. Ben is us. He's great and we missed him. But that first half, we played really well."
After each team turned the ball over in the first quarter, Coal City finally opened the scoring by capping a short drive with an 8-yard touchdown run by Cole Garcia, one of three Coalers to rush for a touchdown. Skubic led the ground attacks for the hosts with 123 yards on 14 carries, including a 20-yard touchdown in the big third quarter.
But after that first score, Thorson had the Warriors (5-5) on the move before his injury and the missed kick. He completed 8 of 13 passes all in the first half before leaving the game.
"I did, I really did," Thorson said when asked if he wanted to return to the game in the second half. "Coal City is a great team and they're going to do some great things in the playoffs. But we fought and I was proud of our guys. We never quit."
Like his teammate, Thorson was surprised at how the game slipped away so quickly.
"It (stinks) to go out like this, but we played a hard season and one of our goals was to make the playoffs. And (tonight) we were in it. It was amazing."
Baumgarten struggled at first against a Coalers defense that has allowed 14 or fewer points in every game since a 21-7 loss to Morris in the season opener. The Wheaton Academy offense picked up eventually, but it didn't really matter as Coal City shone on both sides of the ball while moving on to the second round.
"We knew it had to be a 48-minute battle against a team like Coal City, and unfortunately we broke down in the third quarter," Warriors coach Brad Thornton said. "Ben getting hurt didn't help, but I'm proud they fought hard. This is my sixth year and start to finish this was the toughest schedule we played. Finishing 5-5 is not indicative how well this team played."