WILMINGTON – When Coal City and Wilmington get together on the football field, it’s always one to remember. Friday night’s game, though, might live on in the annals of the rivalry longer than most.
Not only was the game a close battle between two evenly matched teams, but it ended on a play that no one seemed able to fully explain.
With 5.4 seconds remaining, Wilmington faced fourth-and-3 and had to punt, leading 20-16 because of a 19-yard touchdown run by Nick Hawkins – his third score of the night – on fourth-and-5 at the 3:54 mark. Wilmington punter Keaten Hansen booted the ball and it bounced and rolled to near the Coal City 30.
Then, things got nuts.
With Wilmington players heading to the sideline thinking the game was over and teammates coming to the field to celebrate, Coal City’s Danny Kroeger ran and picked up the ball, which was still live. He ran away from the Wilmington sideline across the field toward his own, got a big block from teammate Brad Littleton and turned the corner. He made it to the Wilmington 30 before being wrapped up and pitched the ball backward. Teammate Brock Crawford picked it up, but was tackled at the 25.
At that point, the Coal City coaching staff was pointing out that Wilmington had too many players on the field, and the officials huddled. It appeared that Coal City would get an untimed down, but a personal foul was called on the Coalers and the game was over.
“It’s frustrating because they had too many players on the field,” Coal City coach Lenny Onsen said. “It’s not that hard of a call. But we didn’t lose the game on the last play. There were plenty of other things we can look at that we could have done differently.
“But I think this definitely lit a fire under us. I know the coaches are fired up.”
The Coalers (1-1) and Wildcats (2-0) were fired up from the outset. Wilmington received the opening kickoff, but fumbled on the first play from scrimmage and Coal City’s Mike Pampuch recovered at the Wildcat 34. On Coal City’s first play, the Wilmington defense forced a fumble and the Wildcats got the ball right back. Five plays later, Hawkins, who finished with 176 yards on 20 carries, broke loose for a 44-yard touchdown run and Alex Hatten’s kick made it 7-0.
“At the start, the ball was damp and the emotions were high,” Onsen said. “Both teams were geared up and then, boom, boom, there’s a couple of fumbles. But both teams settle down and battled to the very last play.”
Late in the first quarter, Coal City picked up a first down on third-and-19 on a 25-yard pass from Nick Micetich to Brad Littleton and carried that momentum into the second quarter. Brad Chunovic capped the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run and Littleton’s kick tied the score. After the Coal City defense forced a Wilmington punt, Kroeger returned the kick 31 yards to the Wilmington 24, setting up a 29-yard field goal by Littleton that gave the Coalers a 10-7 lead.
After another Wildcat punt, Micetich hit Littleton on a fade route on third-and-9. Littleton broke a tackle and ran the remaining distance untouched for a 65-yard touchdown. The kick was wide, but the Coalers led, 16-7, a lead they took into halftime.
“We really played well in the first half,” Onsen said. “But there are still some things we need to get better at. This is a tough loss. Now, we will see what these kids are made of.
“This game is a good measuring stick for us. It shows us what we’ve really got, and we’re pretty evenly matched with Wilmington.”
After halftime, Wilmington’s offense picked up, and Hawkins scored midway through the third quarter on a 43-yard run to make it 16-14 before his game-winning run with 3:54 to play.
“Nick is a special back,” Wilmington coach Jeff Reents said. “He’s one of the most determined guys we’ve ever had here.
“The big thing for us was halftime. We were taking it on the chin in the first half, and it was gut-check time. We made the plays we had to at the end. I think this game makes both teams better. We root for the Coalers the rest of the season, except for this one game.”