Eagles outlast Chargers in SWSC Blue dogfight
Friday night’s SouthWest Suburban Conference Blue showdown between Sandburg and Stagg was all about substance instead of style.
In an era when lots of scoring is deemed necessary to make football appealing to the casual fan, the Eagles and Chargers harkened back to an earlier time, when defenses ruled the gridiron. Aesthetically, there was nothing particularly attractive about the contest, but that mattered little to Sandburg players and coaches.
The result that style of play produced looked beautiful to them.
By virtue of a hard-fought 14-0 decision over Stagg at Seliga Field, the Eagles became playoff eligible for the fifth straight year. They can guarantee themselves a berth in the Class 8A tournament by knocking off SWSC Blue leader Bolingbrook this Friday.
The Chargers, meanwhile, need to beat Homewood-Flossmoor in Week 9 simply to warrant postseason consideration. Nevertheless, it’s a much more favorable position than Stagg (4-4, 2-4) found itself in a season ago, when it had already been eliminated from the playoff hunt.
But neither that realization, nor the fact his club finally gave Sandburg a battle after years of beat-downs could completely placate Chargers coach Mike Fahey.
“We played good enough football to win the game,” the first-year leader said. “We just couldn’t finish drives. Those things come back to bite you.”
Indeed, Stagg made a number of forays inside the Eagles’ 40, including a couple times in the fourth quarter. Both of those possessions ended on interceptions, however, as Lavelle Johnson and Adam Nash each picked off an Adam Pilota aerial, the former doing so at his own 4-yard line.
Making the turnovers especially critical was that Sandburg (5-3, 4-2) was nursing a 7-0 lead at those junctures.
“I expected our guys to play well [and] it was a one-possession game the whole game,” Fahey said.
The Eagles struck on their initial series of the evening after Dennis Bresingham returned a punt across midfield. Brian Langowski culminated a 44-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run.
From there, the game settled into a defensive struggle, much to Sandburg coach Dave Wierzal’s delight.
“I was hoping for one [of those],” he said. “This is one of the best Stagg teams we’ve seen in a while. After they put up 61 points against Joliet West, I was afraid we’d get into another shootout and I didn’t know if we could get enough points to keep up.
“This is probably more like we’ve played offense [in the past] — the old-fashioned, grind-it-out type of ballgame.”
The Eagles wasted another scoring opportunity on a possession that bridged the first and second quarters. Graham Hevel’s interception had given the ball back to Sandburg and the hosts eventually set themselves up in a first-and-goal situation at the Chargers’ 7-yard line, but they were then stopped on fourth down at the 2.
“I think this was only the third time all year we’ve been in the red zone and come away with zero points,” Wierzal said.
Fahey was pleased to see his guys’ show of resistance at that moment.
“They could have gone up two scores early and put us in chase mode right away,” he said of the Eagles. “We kept getting them to punt, and we thought we could catch them [being down by only one touchdown].”
Sandburg’s defense returned the slam-the-door favor a bit later after Stagg had marched inside the Eagles’ 20. Mike Howard’s sack of Pilota pushed the Chargers backwards 8 yards and then Stagg misfired on a field-goal attempt, something Sandburg also did prior to intermission.
More of the same occurred after halftime, with Leith Sadi’s interception ruining a third-period Eagles series that had entered Chargers territory and an incomplete pass on fourth down leaving the visitors stranded at Sandburg’s 13. Sadi, Roger Boylan and Ryan Slager were Stagg defenders cited by Fahey for their strong play, while Marty Micek (eight solo stops, four assists, two sacks), Alante Walker (eight solos, two assists), Louis Paleothodoros (six solos, two assists), Nash (six solos, one assist), Howard (five solos, one sack), Hevel (three solos, six assists) and Matt Taylor (four solos) all made their presences felt on the Eagles’ behalf.
“We had a feeling they were trying to pound us,” Fahey said of Sandburg’s prevention corps. “They play that frantic style [of defense] that kind of leads to shutouts.”
The Eagles’ whitewash was their first of 2013, but it obviously occurred at an opportune time for them.
“We had some concerns about our defense early in the season, but they’ve steadily improved,” Wierzal said. “They definitely proved that this [past] week. I was really happy with how the defense played. [Their performance] was special and it’s a big step for us.”
Langowski finally gave Sandburg some additional breathing room when he raced 45 yards for another TD with just over 2½ minutes remaining in the game. Langowski finished with 119 rushing yards, which offset a solid display by Stagg’s Austin Kelly (18 carries, 105 yards).
While Fahey had originally wondered how seriously the Eagles would view the Chargers — “If you look at the 54-7 score [of last year], I could see from a kid’s perspective where you don’t see much of a rivalry there,” he said — Wierzal made sure his guys weren’t underestimating Stagg.
“That was definitely part of our conversation during the week — trying to reinforce the message this is this year, they’re playing with renewed energy and they’re playing some good football,” Wierzal said of the Chargers. “And it was [also] hard not to think in terms of playoff eligibility and where the seedings will put us.”
As for Stagg, Fahey hopes its strong showing versus Sandburg laid the groundwork for a competitive exhibition against H-F.
“Obviously, it’s a big challenge ahead of us, but anytime you play a four-quarter football game, it’s a good test [to ready you],” he said. “I thought our preparation and focus was good, and I thought we got better on defense. That gives you a chance to win.”
Stagg 0 0 0 0 - 0
Sandburg 7 0 0 7 - 14
First downs 12 15
Yds. rushing 110 164
Yds. passing 81 66
Total yds. 191 230
Att./comp. 21-8 15-6
Fumbles/lost 2-0 1-0
Had intercepted 3 1
Penalties/yds. 7-52 8-70
Punts/avg. 2-28.5 3-37.7
CS — Brian Langowski, 1-yd. run (Jonathan Milazzo kick)
CS — Langowski, 45-yd. run (Milazzo kick)
Stagg Rushing: Kelly 18-105. Passing: Pilota 21-8-81. Receiving: Mackessy 6-65.
Sandburg Rushing: Langowski 19-119, Gutierrez 8-21, Muno-Kohn 4-13, Johnson 2-7, Walker 1-4. Passing: Gutierrez 15-6-66. Receiving: Johnson 3-48, Carney 2-12, Bresingham 1-6.