Vezza, York run past Palatine and into 8A semifinals
Matt Vezza can beat teams with his arm.
On Saturday, the York senior quarterback showed once again that he can also do that with his legs.
One week after running for the game-winning score against Marist, Vezza rushed for a pair of touchdowns on a season-high 28 carries in the Dukes' 24-10 Class 8A quarterfinal win over Palatine in Elmhurst.
Finishing with 153 yards on the ground, Vezza helped York stay undefeated on the season while also becoming the first team in program history to reach 12 victories. The Dukes will play in their third-ever semifinal, the first since 2006, next week against Loyola.
"Last week was windy, this week I didn't really expect that (many carries)," said Vezza, who ran 26 times for 142 yards against Marist. "But especially at the end of the game, when we jumped out to that lead, we kept the ball on the ground. Protect the ball, stay inbounds, keep the clock moving. I'm ready to run the ball when needed; just follow my offensive line and our lead blockers and get as many yards as I can."
Vezza found the end zone on a seven-yard run in the first quarter and later added a 21-yard TD scamper early in the fourth.
"It's incredible," Vezza said. "We will be in the history books for a little bit. The winningest team in York history, the first team to get to 12 wins. To accomplish that is amazing but better than that, we are still together and keep getting to play football."
The visiting Pirates, who last made it to the semifinals in 2016, took a 10-7 lead into halftime on a one-yard run by Nate Branch and a 28-yard field goal from Connor May.
They held that advantage until early in the fourth quarter when a safety by York's Ashton Nawrocki seemingly turned the momentum. On the ensuing possession, York's Jake Melion broke multiple tackles on his way to a 41-yard TD. After the two-point conversion -- a Vezza pass to Luke Mailander -- the Dukes pulled in front 17-10.
Tommy Elter completed 17-of-30 passes for 168 yards and Branch had 74 yards on six catches for Palatine (10-2). JD Wardle also notched a fumble recovery.
"Tip your caps to York," said Palatine coach Corey Olson, whose team's only other loss came by one point to Glenbrook South in week four. "They are a great football team. They have a group of kids who have fought and battled all year and won a lot of close games against good football teams.
"This was another hard-fought battle today. We won the first half and they won the second half by a little more. Those were two great football teams on the field, one just made a few more plays. Losing our QB midseason, we were 3-1 at the time and then rattled off seven wins. We have a pretty impressive group of kids and I'm proud of them. Our seniors left their mark on this program. Palatine is a special place and we will miss those kids."
Melion also went over the century mark, adding 108 yards on 17 attempts. The other story was the Dukes' defense, which pitched a shutout over the final 24 minutes against a Pirates' offense that came in averaging just under 38 points a game. In fact, Palatine's lowest output was 26 points back in the season opener.
David Loch and Reece Richardson each had interceptions in the final quarter for York, which has yielded just 113 points through 12 games.
"We knew what we had to do," said Loch, an all-conference linebacker a year ago who missed the first eight weeks this year due to injury. "We bent in that first half but we never broke. I'm proud of everyone on the defense, on the whole team frankly. Everyone was fighting so hard through the adversity we saw in the first half.
"We stressed it all week, this wasn't about ourselves or our stats. Yes, this is the first time York has gotten to 12 wins but we didn't focus on that. We focused on playing for each other. The bond we have with each other is the strongest bond I've ever felt."
York coach Mike Fitzgerald will be making his fourth appearance in a semifinal, the first two as an assistant at Marist and the last as the head coach at St. Francis.
"This group is resilient," Fitzgerald said. "They continued believing and they found a way to win. It's incredible. I've been coaching a long time and it's very difficult to get to this point. It takes a lot of hard work and commitment from so many people. It's such a rewarding accomplishment and it also means at least one more week with these guys. We are going to fight to keep hanging on and I'm looking forward to the preparation for next week."