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Unbeaten Phoenix defeat Knights

NEW LENOX – Needing one victory in its final two games in order to clinch a playoff berth, Lincoln-Way Central put itself in a position to do just that on Friday by rallying from an 18-3 deficit to tie things at 18 late in the second quarter against unbeaten Lincoln-Way North.

But the Phoenix responded to the threat by getting a long scoring drive just before the break and then returning the opening kickoff of the second half for a touchdown as they spoiled the Knights’ senior night by capturing a 45-18 SouthWest Suburban Conference Red win.

North (8-0, 6-0) capped a 12-play, 80-yard drive with a one-yard run by Joe Peters (24 rushes, 129 yards) on fourth and goal with eight seconds left in the opening half for a 25-18 lead. And then they got a 96-yard kick return from Colton Pedersen to open the final half.

“At no point did we say that this was a game that we could relax in since you can’t look past anyone, that’s not our M.O.,” Phoenix coach George Czart said. “I don’t blame us at all for the first half. We were playing a team that was out there fighting, hitting hard, playing tough and fighting for their playoff life. But in the end, we persisted.

“We like to tell our kids that the water is going to beat the rock. Their big kids were pounding us, but at the end, we came out on top. It was a nice game to play and coach in since it was challenging, and that’s the way it should be. They’re a well-coached team with good athletes so we didn’t expect for them to lie down at all. But we also know that we’re pretty talented.”

The Knights (4-4, 3-3), who must win at 7-1 Thornton next week in order to reach the playoffs for a second straight year, grabbed a 3-0 lead just 2:49 into the contest on Brock Krohe’s 29-yard field goal. But North responded with three straight touchdowns, capped off by a 45-yard interception return by Jimmy Vallos.

Central, which was led by senior quarterback Austin Strilko (13 of 21, 129 yards), rallied with a 47-yard strike from senior Nolan Hayes to senior Ryan Foster (three catches, 69 yards) on a reverse and then got a 30-yard fumble return from senior defensive lineman Bryan Ditchman within a span of just 20 seconds to tie things with 4:35 left in the half.

“They’re a good football team, give them credit for that,” Knights coach Jeremy Cordell said. “Our kids played well in the first half and did a lot of good things. We were extremely physical the whole game, and I’m proud of that. Our kids come ready to hit.

“On the other hand, we have to find ways to make big plays against really good football teams, and that was the difference. They made some big plays and that translated for them. We’re going to put together our best week of practice and are going to play a good opponent in Thornton and just get after it.”

North, which clinched a share of the SWSC Red title and hosts 7-1 Lincoln-Way West next week, got two more touchdowns in the third quarter to break things open.

One was a 43-yard pass from Jake Arthur (14 of 18, 207 yards) to Pat Troike (six catches, 116 yards) and the other was a sneak by Arthur. The Phoenix didn’t have to use their top offensive threat, Jaylin Branch, who got injured in last week’s win over Thornton.

Among the Knights’ leaders on defense were Jake Dudeck and Ditchman, who each had two tackles for losses. Others with multiple stops included seniors Casey Dobczyk, Steven Podkulski, Eric Ramos and Zach Rudsinski as well as Jacob Pott and Blake Evans.

Dropping the home finale is tough, especially for 27 players who were honored as seniors. The game had special meaning for Hayes, whose family has deep ties to the school.

“We knew that we had a challenge and we tried our best and put up a good fight,” Hayes said. “That was my second touchdown pass of the year. Me and Bryan are good buddies so his fumble return was really cool and no one was taking him down. But we let up a big play at the start of the second half and that changed the momentum.

“I grew up watching this program. My dad (Steve) used to coach and both he and my older brother played here. Obviously, there’s a lot of history with my family, so it’s tough. But we played with all of our hearts and gave it our all and we just came up short.”

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