From the easy chair into the fire — that pretty much described Evergreen Park’s entrance into the 2013 football season.
The Mustangs didn’t just lounge around prior to Friday night’s meeting with Phillips, of course, but they also didn’t have any previous on-field experiences off which to build. Evergreen’s scheduled season-opener against Little Village the week before never got played, first because inclement weather forced a postponement, then because Phoenix coaches couldn’t agree on any suggested makeup time later in the weekend.
As a result, the Mustangs’ Week 1 win came via forfeit, which meant Phillips represented their first actual competition. And the Wildcats definitely offered a big-time challenge.
In fact, Phillips, which had pushed De La Salle to overtime one week earlier, very nearly left Evergreen with a victory in tow. Three things — or, rather, three people — kept the Wildcats from doing so.
When Mustangs quarterback Jonathan O’Brien hooked up with Jacquet McClendon on a 15-yard touchdown pass with 37.7 seconds remaining in regulation, Evergreen expunged a deficit and moved in front by three points. And then Tim Walsh came to the Mustangs’ defensive rescue.
Walsh, who already had one interception to his credit, swiped another pass in his own end zone. That quashed Phillips’ furious comeback bid in the closing seconds and salted away a hard-fought 35-32 triumph for Evergreen.
“It was tough,” Mustangs coach Dan Hartman said of gaining the win. “They were a very, very good team. They’ve got a really good coaching staff, with a few ex-NFLers on it, and we knew after last year they were going to be a difficult matchup.
“First of all, every guy that touches the ball for them can bring it to the house [in one play]. And they play hard from the first snap to the last one.”
That much was evident in the Wildcats’ ability to make substantial headway on their final possession. A good kickoff return gave Phillips favorable field position in the late going, and it chewed up another big chunk of yardage with a long pass completion just prior to Walsh’s theft.
Interceptions had been a bane for Evergreen (2-0), too, as O’Brien got picked off four times in the first half. One of those was returned 90 yards for a touchdown.
Phillips was also guilty of some pre-halftime sloppiness, but it overcame a couple fumbles well enough to establish a 21-6 lead. Hartman attributed some of his own team’s troubles to its debuting a week later than everyone else.
“I think it was definitely a disadvantage not being on the field the first week,” he said. “[But our guys] never really let themselves get down [mentally]. Nobody quit because they knew they had a chance.”
Hope became reality when the Mustangs scored twice before intermission to draw within a single point of their opponent. Will Jones’ recovery of a bad snap in the Wildcats’ end zone gave Evergreen a much-needed boost and Keyshawn Carpenter followed up soon after with a 5-yard TD run, his second score of the half.
The senior tailback, who rushed for 172 yards on 30 carries, capped an earlier 90-yard drive with a 1-yard plunge.
“They knew we made a bunch of mental mistakes [previously],” Hartman said of his athletes. “They had some confidence after they were able to claw their way back into it.”
O’Brien was among those players who got an emotional lift. Despite his rocky start, O’Brien wound up completing 18-of-35 passes for 224 yards. One of those aerials, to Eric Gurrister, became a 35-yard scoring play.
“We tried to keep him positive,” Hartman said of his senior signal-caller, “and he came out and played well [in the second half].”
Gurrister, who also made a clutch fourth-down catch on the Mustangs’ game-winning march, finished the night with seven receptions and 100 yards’ worth of gains. McClendon accrued 124 yards with his 10 catches. On the defensive side, Don Oresky (interception) and James Jackson joined Walsh as influential figures.
The contest was the first ever played on Evergreen’s refurbished field, which now sports artificial turf. The Mustangs also attracted a full house — Hartman believed it was the largest crowd for a home football game in several seasons.
The third-year coach called his club’s win “big,” and its importance might be seen more clearly as Evergreen begins another journey through the South Suburban Conference Red. Its initial encounter is with neighboring Oak Lawn Friday night.
Evergreen Park 35
Evergreen Park Rushing: Carpenter 30-172. Passing: O’Brien 35-18-224. Receiving: McClendon 10-124, Gurrister 7-100.