WW South hangs tough on vital final play
Not even the pedigree of seven state titles could ease the nerves for Wheaton Warrenville South's football team.
Back in the postseason for the first time since 2014, the Tigers' nerves became even worse in the waning seconds of Friday's 20-12 victory over visiting Belleville West in the opening round of the Class 7A playoffs.
Belleville West had first and goal at WW South's 3-yard line with under a second to play, needing a touchdown and 2-point conversion to send the game to overtime. Quarterback Jackson McCloskey's pass across the middle fell incomplete, however, to send the Tigers into the second round.
"Not as close as we wanted it to be, but our defense finished the game out and got it done," said Tigers running back Jake Arthurs, who rushed for 71 yards. "This first one is huge under our belts. In sixth period today I started feeling the nerves. I just didn't want to let down my teammates, so it was good nerves."
Both defenses stood tall throughout the game, although 14th-seeded WW South (9-1) took a 7-0 lead on its opening possession on Prince Lankah's 6-yard scoring run. The Tigers seemed poised for a blowout when Jack Olsen kicked a 35-yard field goal and Joe Ives returned a punt 78 yards for a touchdown to boost the lead to 17-0 in the opening minute of the second quarter.
"It was hard because we normally don't start out like that," said Maroons running back Clarence Davis, who rushed for 91 yards and a touchdown. "If we had a better start like we usually do, I think we could have won the game. We needed to execute better."
Nineteenth-seeded Belleville West (7-3) struck back right after Ives' punt return. McCloskey found electric sophomore receiver Dominic Lovett for an 81-yard touchdown run to bring the Maroons back in the game.
Olsen added a 44-yard field goal as WW South took a 20-6 halftime lead, but then Belleville West shut down the Tigers' offense in the second half. The Maroons rallied with good field position, driving 43 yards in six plays including five runs by Davis, whose 2-yard touchdown run narrowed the gap to 20-12 after a second missed extra point in the opening minute of the fourth quarter.
"We had our opportunity," said Belleville West coach Cameron Pettus. "Obviously we came out on the losing end, and that's never fun, but the way we competed and came back in the second half, I'm very proud of our guys making the trip up here and doing what they did."
WW South punted on its final two possessions. The second by Olsen pinned the Maroons on their 11 with 2:43 to play, but they methodically moved down the field. Five straight passes from McCloskey, who threw for 205 yards, went to Will Lanxon.
Belleville West converted three third-down plays and a fourth-down play to push into the red zone, but the Tigers ultimately held on the game's final play.
"The film (Saturday) might be rough," said Ives, who returned a second punt for a touchdown that was called back on a penalty. "We can't get complacent. We're just going to try to get better from this win and learn from it."
The Tigers advance to play on the road at No. 3 Hononegah (10-0), a 21-20 winner over Buffalo Grove.
"This is the first time these guys have been in the playoffs so they've got to feel that pressure," said Tigers coach Ron Muhitch. "They need to learn how to win and play four quarters as a group. We're still a work in progress in a lot of ways."
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