By Jason Maholy
When a program hasn't won a home playoff game in 27 years, attempting to exorcise that demon doesn't come easy.
Kevin Graham hit Yousef Isa for a 46-yard touchdown pass on the game's first play, and Shepard jumped out to a 23-point lead in its opening round Class 6A playoff contest against Springfield, then withstood a late rally to prevail, 51-36, on Oct. 27 in Palos Heights. The victory was the Astros' first at home in the postseason since 1991, when they defeated Simeon.
The Astros (8-2) will play at Normal West at 7:30 p.m. Friday. Shepard has never advanced past the second round of the playoffs.
Shepard head coach John Rone was on the losing end of what had before last Saturday been the last Astros home playoff win 27 years ago, when he was a freshman playing for the Wolverines.
“These young men over here in orange, they fought hard all summer, fought hard all season,” Rone said. “Ups and downs, things with injuries for some of these guys – we had ups and downs in this game. We always tell them that as a man you're going to face adversity, you have to attack that adversity head on, overcome it, and good things will happen.”
It didn't appear the Astros would be facing much adversity as they built a 29-7 lead, the latest of those scores a 50-yard touchdown run by Graham barely more than a minute into the second half.
Then what was on the verge of an all-out romp started to get interesting. The Senators stormed back, and with two minutes left were within eight points and had the ball at their own 42-yard line.
Then Astros senior linebacker Chris Harrison stepped in front of a Rashad Rochelle pass and returned the interception 50 yards for a backbreaking touchdown. The pick was one of four by the Shepard defense.
Harrison was in perfect position to make the play, and saw nothing but grass and the end zone in front of him.
“The whole game he was getting me on the slant,” he said of Rochelle, the Senators freshman signal-caller. “So I had to jump it and get that pick and take it to the house. I was waiting on it.”
The Astros recovered the ensuing onside kick and ran out the clock for the win.
Rone said he cautioned his team that Springfield was capable of making a game of it.
“We knew this team as going to make a comeback, we told them at halftime,” he said. “We knew they weren't dead, we knew it 100 percent.
Rone was pleased with the way his team responded to Springfield's attempt at a comeback.
“We always tell them to keep playing. Just keep playing and good things can happen,” he said.
The Shepard offense did its best to help maintain a comfortable lead while the defense scuffled and special teams allowed a kickoff return for a score. A Graham fumble led to a Springfield scoring drive.
“We put it on the offense to make sure we scored every time because [the Senators] were bound to make a few plays, and we pretty much did that,” he said. “We had an unfortunate turnover, but guys didn't panic. They put their heads down, we kept plugging away and got that 'W.'”
Harrison scored the Astros final two touchdowns, both in dramatic fashion. With 2:26 to go in the third quarter, the athletic wideout outleaped a Springfield defender to come down with a wobbly pass Graham had launched downfield while under duress. Harrison caught the ball at the Senators 20 and dashed the final 60 feet for the score.
He finished with four receptions for 87 yards and the touchdown, and returned five kicks for 125 yards.
The senior has 18 touchdowns this season, and has scored running, receiving, on defense and as a returner.
“There's not enough you can say about what Chris Harrison does for us on this football field,” Rone said. “He's just a heck of a player and he makes guys like me look better than we are.”
Astros senior Rishard Blake also appreciates Harrison's contributions. Blake, who started the first four games at quarterback before transitioning to wide receiver and playing nearly every down on defense, had two interceptions.
“He's got that dog in him,” Blake said of Harrison. “He's just a beast.”
Graham completed 11 of 19 passes for 276 yards and three touchdowns, and ran for 87 yards and two scores. Senior running back Korey Burrell had a huge game, rushing 27 times for 137 yards and catching three passes for 83 yards, while scoring once on the ground and once through the air.
Graham, a senior who missed the first four games of the season recovering from an injury, has started at quarterback since returning in Week 5 – but was under center that game only because Blake was injured. Rone liked the what Graham added to the offense and the way his teammates responded to his leadership,
“He's tough as nails mentally and physically, and he knows the game of football,” Rone said.
The coach is happy to see Graham having success in his final high school season. He was unsure where he would play when he came back from the injury.
“He wants to be out here with his class,” he said. “The senior class has had a great run at Shepard, and he's part of that, so I'm just really happy for him to be able to overcome everything he's had to overcome and be able to helps us out.”
Graham is grateful for his opportunity, and is making he most of the last ride with the guys he has played with for four seasons.
“It feels great to make history,” he said of winning a home playoff game. “It's something that hasn't been done in awhile and I'm glad I got to do it with the people I got to do it with. It's honestly amazing.”
Graham said the goal is now to be the first Shepard team to win two playoff games in a season.
“We've got to do something big this year,” he said. “We're hungry so we've got to keep that up. We're starving for that; we need that second-round win.”