Vernon Hills savors finally playing, then beating Highland Park

By Bill McLean
Daily Herald Correspondent
Updated 3/27/2021 7:52 PM

Vernon Hills' football team turned a negative into a positive Saturday afternoon in Highland Park.

But here's the thing: The negative was a ... positive. And the positive?


Positively delightful.

Vernon Hills' players all tested negative for COVID-19 on March 22 -- a couple of days after their scheduled season opener at Niles North was postponed due to COVID-19 protocols -- and then defeated Highland Park's Giants 36-12 in their replacement season opener five days later.

"I woke up early and had the jitters today," Cougars coach Bill Bellecomo admitted after his crew outscored Highland Park 24-0 in the second half of the Central Suburban League North contest. "It had been 437 days, or something like that, since we last played a football game (in 2019).

"I can't say enough good things about our seniors and our team's leadership during the pandemic last year. So many of our guys worked out on their own, kept strong, stayed in shape. The true test of one's character is what they do when no one is watching."

Perhaps no one was as jacked up to play as Vernon Hills senior running back/linebacker Ryan Mann was at chilly Wolters Field. The 6-foot, 200-pounder who will play at NIU in the fall, had suffered a broken right femur in Week 2 of the 2019 season. All he did on a pair of healthy legs Saturday afternoon was rush for 138 yards on 22 carries; return a third-quarter punt 53 yards for a touchdown; scoot for 2 more TDs covering 10 and 34 yards; catch 2 passes for 16 yards; and run for a 2-point conversion.

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"I had a talk with Ryan at halftime," said Bellecomo, whose club had a so-so first half, surrendering 12 unanswered points after needing only 5:01 to establish a 12-0 lead, with the first TD (Mann's 10-yarder) coming two plays after VH senior linebacker Justin Morris recovered an errant Highland Park snap on Highland Park's 13-yard line in the game's first minute.

"I told him, 'Big-time players make big-time plays.' "

Mann's reply to his coach: "I got you."

Highland Park got the win, 16-7, in the teams' last meeting on Oct. 4, 2019. Cougars junior wideout/defensive back Jake Pieper shared that recollection after picking off a pass, grabbing a 14-yard TD pass from senior quarterback Ben Halley (9-of-19, 143 yards), coming down with a pair of 2-point conversion passes and finishing with 85 yards on 3 receptions against the Giants (1-1, 1-1).

"We thought about that score all week," Pieper said.

Highland Park tallied its first TD Saturday with 12 seconds left in the first quarter, capping a 63-yard trip with a 19-yard toss from senior quarterback David Crane (12-of-26, 138 yards, 2 INTs) to junior wideout Ben Ephraim (2 catches, 55 yards).

Giants junior running back Evan Bloom (13 carries, 57 yards) entered the end zone after a 14-yard run at 5:02 of the second quarter.

"We got off to a bad start," said Highland Park coach and alumnus David Lindquist, who started at defensive tackle for the Illinois team that lost to USC in the 2008 Rose Bowl. "But our guys responded well after falling behind 12-0.

"Vernon Hills," he added, "is a well-coached team with a good group of kids. Kudos to them for their strong second half."

VH's Morris intercepted a Crane pass midway through the fourth quarter. Junior wideout Erik Rimas had 3 receptions for 36 yards, and junior linebacker Jonathon Ford recorded a sack for the Cougars (1-0, 1-0), who host Deerfield (2-0, 2-0) -- a Class 6A state semifinalist in 2019 -- next week.

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