By Jason Maholy
Marist running back Amari Watkins sat behind seniors at the position last season and made the most of his opportunities to get on the field by excelling on special teams.
RedHawks’ quarterback Hayden Mikesell was successful as he was groomed for the position at the lower levels, and played well when called upon as Mike Markett’s backup in 2018.
Both players, now in their senior seasons, are seizing their moments and making plays in crunch time. The duo sparked a thrilling 24-17 come-from behind victory on the road against Lake Zurich in Week 2.
Mikesell scored on an eight-yard run with 11 seconds left in regulation, and Amari converted the subsequent two-point try to force overtime, then scored the winning touchdown on a fourth-down run in overtime. The RedHawks improved to 2-0 for only the second time since 2012.
Watkins finished with 22 carries for 167 yards, including a 53-yard jaunt, and Mikesell ran for 63 yards and two touchdowns as Marist racked up 270 yards on the ground.
Marist coach Ron Dawczak said getting an exciting victory on the road was a great moment for his team to build on as they embark on a conference slate that includes Notre Dame, Brother Rice, Mount Carmel, Nazareth and Loyola over the next seven weeks. Every one of those teams advanced to at least its respective class's state semifinals in 2018, and two of them won championships.
The biggest thing was our guys’ willingness to fight for everything and never give,” Dawczak said. “We made some mistakes where it would have been easy for them to put their heads down, but they kept fighting and knew they were going to find a way to win.”
Marist never led in regulation, and took over on offense down eight with less than two minutes remaining. Mikesell was huge on the game-tying drive, running multiple times for chunks of yardage to help keep the chains moving. His touchdown brought Marist to within two and set up Watkins’ clutch two-pointer.
“Nobody panicked, everyone was focused and they went out and executed,” Dawczak said, adding that Mikesell’s leadership and playmaking were key on the drive. “He’s been in the program four years and he’s getting the opportunity now to lead the team as a senior, and it’s something he’s embraced. In a big game in a hostile environment on the road, being able to keep his composure an lead the team to an impressive win is a testament to all the hard work he’s put in for us.”
Watkins scored on the opening possession in overtime, charging in from one-yard out on Marist’s final play of the extra session. The RedHawks defense then stopped the Bears on fourth-and-eight to clinch the win.
Like Mikesell, Watkins is making the most of his opportunities. He has 254 yards rushing and three touchdowns through two games.
“He played an incredible game,” Dawczak said of Watkins’ performance against Lake Zurich. “He ran really hard, never wen t down on first contact. I’m really impressed with the way he ran the ball.”
Watkins is determined to make his senior season one to remember, according to Dawczak. After waiting for his moment to play while backing up older, more experienced players in 2018, the former special teams standout has taken advantage of having a larger role.
Marist begins play in the new East Suburban Catholic Conference-Chicago Catholic League at home against Notre Dame at 7:30 p.m. Friday. The Dons (2-0) are coming off a season in which they advanced to the Class 6A semifinals.