Photo by Jim Boyce
St. Laurence quarterback Romello Washington gets ready to fire a pass in an upset victory over Lemont Saturday in Burbank.
No offense to Rich Central, King and Tinley Park, the schools St. Laurence beat on the way to last year’s Class 5A state football semifinals, but Vikings coach Harold Blackmon was happy to see the murderer’s row of traditional powers in his team’s 6A path when the brackets were announced by the Illinois High School Association for this postseason.
“After the last game of the season, when we lost to (St.) Ignatius … the first thing I told our coaches was, ‘We need this bracket,’” Blackmon said. “Our kids need to be challenged.”
And the challenge presented by a potential path of fifth-seeded Richards, No. 4 Crete-Monee and No. 1 Lemont carried an added motivational bonus.
“Last year, with the road we took we didn’t get any respect from other teams,” Blackmon said. “So I said, ‘This year, let’s take the hardest road.’”
With Friday’s 27-20 ouster of previously unbeaten Lemont, the Vikings have now advanced as far as last year’s team. The No. 12 seed will travel to Springfield for a semifinal contest with second-ranked Sacred Heart-Griffin, a 56-13 quarterfinal winner over Rock Island Saturday at 2 p.m. Saturday.
Lemont (11-1) led the Vikings (9-3) only in the first quarter, after a 37-yard Steve Fleming field goal ended its first possession. But the Indians’ drive toward a potential tying touchdown died at the St. Laurence 12-yard line with 52.2 seconds to play, when a fourth-down pass fell incomplete.
“That’s a talented team,” St. Laurence running back Fayezon Smart said of Lemont. “But we’re talented, too.
“I feel like our defense doesn’t get the credit it deserves. But tonight, our big-time players showed their true colors… Last year we had great players. This year we have great athletes — and our great athletes made big-time plays when it counted.”
Lemont quarterback Spencer Nagel completed 21 of 35 passes for 206 yards and a touchdown. But Lemont added just 74 yards on the ground and, after averaging nearly 41 points per game over its previous five outings, was stymied in several key situations by the Vikings.
Willie Spears and Damon Stewart each had multiple passes defended from the cornerback spots. Adam Andrews had three solo tackles and seven assists, Eddie Pierson had a tackle for a loss and half a sack. But no defender had a bigger day than end Sean Lange, who was credited with three solo tackles, 13 assists and a strip-and-recovery on what may have been the game’s biggest play.
Leading 13-10 after giving up a touchdown with 18.7 seconds left in the half, the Vikings kicked off to start the third quarter. Lemont gained 17 yards on its first snap of the half, but two plays later Lange blindsided Nagel, who coughed up the ball as Lange pounced on it.
“I knew I had a linebacker coming from the outside, and he flushed (Nagel) out,” Lange said. “When I stripped it, I knew I had to dive on it. Going into the second half, we knew the momentum wasn’t really on our side, so we needed a big play.”
Four snaps later, Smart (37 carries, 165 yards) scored from 11 yards out to put St. Laurence up 20-10.
The lead grew to 27-10 when Romello Washington (11-of-19, 174 yards, 2 touchdowns) found Levy Hamer for a 19-yard scoring pass. Hamer also had a 34-yard touchdown grab in the second quarter, after Mauricio Garibay staked the Vikings to a 6-3 lead with 21- and 24-yard field goals.
From there, it was on the defense, which in the fourth quarter limited Lemont to just a 34-yard field goal on three trips inside the Vikings’ 27.
Spears said it was a matter of focus.
“I told all my players, ‘Don’t play hungry, play greedy,’” he said. “When you play hungry, it’s easy to get fooled. When you play greedy, you never get fooled.”
The Vikings, it seems, are greedy still. With last year’s 10-3 squad, St. Laurence has now combined for more wins in back-to-back years than in any seasons since the ’70s, when the 1976-79 squads averaged 11 wins and went to the state title game twice.
“We’re striving for greatness,” Spears said.