Photo by Rick Goettsche
Illini West had never played Sterling Newman Central Catholic before Saturday's Class 2A Second Round playoff game, but Carthage (where Illini West High School is located) had.
The last time Sterling Newman and Carthage met was in the 2004 IHSA Class 2A State Championship game, with the Comets coming away with the state title 21-7.
With neither team having a common opponent throughout the course of the regular season, the only things people had to compare the 2018 teams heading into the postseason matchup were schedules and the final state rankings published by the IHSA.
Despite the Chargers coming into the second round matchup with an unscathed 10-0 record, 9-1 Sterling Newman finished fifth in the Class 2A final state rankings, while Illini West finished seventh. Sterling Newman's one loss on the season came against Orion, who finished the regular season 9-0 and ranked third in the final polls.
The Comets held their regular season opponents to 6.44 points per game while scoring 45.33 points per game. Illini West held its regular season opponents to 10.55 points per contest while scoring 47.55 points.
Based off of the rankings and stats, both teams matched up very well.
Despite the first score of the game coming with six seconds to go in the first quarter, Sterling Newman found themselves in the driver's seat with a 22-0 lead with 6:38 to go in the second quarter.
Illini West punted three of its first four offensive possessions and fumbled once, as the Comets scored on three of their first four offensive possessions, taking a 30-6 lead into the half.
Sterling Newman shut down Illini West's big-play offense in the third quarter, as the lead grew to 46-6 heading into the fourth, where the Comets put the game away for the 46-14 win.
“The worst scenario is to get beat by a team that doesn't deserve it,” Illini West Head Coach Lyle Klein said. “The team that beat us really did deserve the win. It was just a matter of they were better than us.
“We wanted more for our players and ourselves. I wanted to see them get some more accolades and I wanted to be able to continue to coach them and be with them. It was heartbreaking at the end, but that's what happens in this game unless you wind up on top.”
The first four possessions decided the game.
Illini West won the opening coin toss and elected to receive.
After three plays, the Chargers punted. Sterling Newman also went three and out on its first offensive drive, resulting in another punt.
Illini West picked up the first first down of the game with 7:00 to go in the first quarter, but the Chargers' second offensive drive of the game stalled, resulting in back-to-back punts.
It took nearly a full quarter before either team scored but finally, Sterling Newman broke the scoreless drought with a two-yard touchdown from Brody Ivey with six seconds remaining in the first quarter.
“I felt good about our start,” Klein said. “I felt our guys were in the right frame of mind before the game … We knew Sterling Newman was very good and thought we knew we could be very good.”
Looking for an answer to begin the second quarter, the Chargers did the opposite, fumbling the ball on their third offensive series of the game.
The Comets wasted no time putting up another six points, as quarterback Brycen Bartel scrambled in for a two-yard touchdown putting Sterling Newman in front 14-0.
The fourth possession was more of the same for Illini West, failing to gain traction in the run game, leading to a third punt.
Again Sterling Newman took the Chargers' punt and marched down the field for a third-straight score and a 22-0 lead with 6:38 remaining in the second quarter.
“The floodgates definitely opened,” Klein said.”We gave them an opening with a turnover. They got a good drive. It was time for us to answer.
“We had a really nice return and then a fumble … Sterling Newman just took over the game from there.”
Illini West's offense started to click on the fifth offensive series of the game. Quarterback Carter Boyer hooked up with sophomore receiver Lincoln Gooding on a pass play that marched the Chargers all the way to the Comet 32-yard line.
Facing a fourth down with just one yard to go to save the drive, Nick Vorhies picked up the first down with four minutes left in the frame. Just as the two had done throughout the season, Vorhies power running set things up for Colton Sargeant's slash and dash running style, as Sargeant capped the drive with the Chargers' first score on a 22-yard touchdown run.
Any bit of momentum the Chargers gained with their first touchdown was gone less than three minutes later.
After receiving the ensuing kickoff with 3:19 to go in the second quarter, the Comets put together a seven-play drive that ended in a four-yard touchdown run from Chase Graham. Graham capped off the drive with the two-point conversion for a 30-6 lead going into the half.
“We knew most of the time where the ball was going,” Klein said. “It's just a matter of their X was able to beat our O. Sometimes that happens when you're at that level.”
The second half was more of the same for both squads.
Illini West's first three offensive possessions of the second half resulted in a punt and two interceptions. Meanwhile, Sterling Newman punted its first time with the ball in the second half but followed with two-straight touchdowns that gave the Comets a 40-point running clock heading into the fourth quarter.
With the game out of reach, the Comets put their reserves in. Coach Klein attempted to put his reserves in, but his seniors wanted to finish out the final game of their high school football careers.
Much like the previous meeting between the two programs from 14 years ago, the Comets again tripled the home team's point total, coming away with the 46-14 win.
Despite the gut-wrenching loss, Klein had nothing but good things to say about his team after the game.
“It was tremendous growth from the very first time we had them,” Klein said of his team. “We were able to add on little things that some of the better teams are able to do. Our guys totally understood the schemes and concepts we were doing. I feel like they could probably call what we would want to do in each situation just like we would. We were all on the same page.
“They studied film, they did what they were supposed to do, they worked hard in the offseason. It was fun watching them grow as young men in our system.”
Illini West will graduate a majority of its starting lineup this coming spring, but the class of 2018-2019 has forever left its mark on the program and its coaches.
“We'll definitely miss the boys,” Klein said. “The good thing is, they move on and they are going to be successful in life because that's how they are as players. I look forward to seeing them grow as individuals.”
Vorhies rushed for 66 yards on 16 carries. Sargeant scored two touchdowns and had 29 yards rushing on six carries. Isaac Schreacke had two receptions for 50 yards. Jake Garnett paced the Charger defense with 4.5 tackles. Michael Lord finished with four tackles.