Statistics often are quoted to demonstrate how dominant a football player or team is.
Rightfully so. The better teams almost invariably have better numbers.
Sometimes, the very best teams do not rely on statistics. They rely on consistency play after play, and when the opportunity to make a big play appears, they take advantage.
That is exactly how Lincoln-Way East has operated all season. The shining example came Saturday night, when the Griffins knocked off Loyola, 23-14, at Northern Illinois University’s Huskie Stadium to claim the Class 8A state championship.
During the second half of a game with an outcome in doubt until the final moments, a writer in the press box made the statement that if he didn’t know the score, he would swear the Griffins (14-0) were well behind and pretty much out of it. That’s because Loyola (12-2) had been so dominant statistically and seemed to be in control.
At halftime, the Ramblers had
177 total yards and 11 first downs, East 53 yards and two first downs. And yet, the Griffins led at the break, 7-0.
That happened because East’s defense, while bending, refused to break, and because the Griffins had forced two turnovers, one of which led to the first-half touchdown.
“Their defense is as good as there is in the state,” East coach Rob Zvonar said of Loyola. “But the one on our side isn’t too bad, either. They shut us down, but our guys kept believing, and we finally broke through.”
A.J. Henning’s two long touchdown runs in the second half were huge. He put the Griffins up, 13-7, with a 63-yard run late in the third quarter, when momentum seemingly was in Loyola’s corner.
Then, with the Griffins leading,
16-14, and about four minutes left in the game, free safety Max Cesario made a superb interception. On the next play, Henning burst 42 yards up the middle, and Dominic Dzioban, who had kicked a 32-yard field goal to put East ahead, 16-14, a minute and a half earlier, converted the extra point that made it a two-possession game.
“It was the tale of two halves,” Zvonar said. “In the first half, they moved the chains, and our defense was tough in the red zone. Then when the chips were down and we had some guys banged up, we got enough touches for our playmakers to get it done.”
As much as Henning’s touchdown runs mattered, however, how about the masterful 5-yard run and dive on fourth-and-4 in the second quarter. Cesario’s forced fumble and Dugan Bolsoni’s recovery preceded the fourth-down conversion, and two plays later, Brendan Morrissey hit Mason Keenan with a 25-yard touchdown pass to create the 7-0 lead.
Morrissey played with an ankle injury that he incurred in the semifinal against Maine South and aggravated in the first quarter against Loyola. But that wasn’t going to keep him on the sidelines.
Zvonar had Morrissey, Henning, Dzioban, linebacker John Christensen, all-state defensive end Devin O’Rourke, Cesario and tight end Turner Pallissard with him to talk with the media after the game.
“I think I hugged everyone on this team today,” Morrissey said. “What started as a dream became a goal and then a mission. I just wanted to do all that I could to help us achieve it.”
“All these guys are not only good football players, but they are top-notch citizens and young men of character,” Zvonar said. “That’s what makes me most proud of them.”
“The last game of the year, no need to hold back,” said O’Rourke, who made five tackles, including two sacks for 14 yards in losses.
This might have been the final game of a championship season, the final high school game for O’Rourke and his senior classmates, but the sort of things observers from all over Illinois saw from the best team in the state on Saturday night was what our area has seen from these Griffins all season.
Regardless of whether it was any of the 11 members of that magnificent defensive unit, whether it was Morrissey, Henning, Pallissard, running back Ryan Scianna, or Keenan or Shane Pedersen as outside receivers, someone always was destined to step up and deliver the big play.
The identity of that someone on a given night did not matter to a team that prided itself on being a true family. You simply knew the play or plays that would swing the outcome the Griffins’ way were coming.
And it happened against anything but a cupcake schedule.
“I’m so happy for these guys to go through the schedule they did and do what they did,” Zvonar said.
You can find outstanding players and teams with more attention-grabbing statistics than the Griffins have. But if you want to win, if you want to beat the best, there was no one better at getting that done than Lincoln-Way East.
• Dick Goss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.