By Randy Whalen
Amari Watkins always has his late grandmother on his mind.
"I play for her," Watkins said of Eleanor Collins, who died in July. "She loved me and she took care of me. So anytime I score I look to the sky and think of her."
It didn't take Watkins long to point skyward during the RedHawks’ Class 8A first-round playoff game against Glenbard East. The senior running back burst through the line and went pretty much untouched for a 53-yard touchdown on Marist's first play from scrimmage.
That set the tone as the RedHawks scored early and often and completely dismantled Glenbard East, 49-7, on Nov. 1 in Lombard.
It was the third straight season that the Marist (6-4) won an opening-round postseason game. They’ll host Huntley, a 48-6 winner over Taft, this weekend in the second round.
The RedHawks had to deafest defending Class 8A state champion Loyola 14-6 on the road in the final week of the regular season just to make the playoffs
Glenbard East (8-2), which had outscored its opponents 253-162 during the regular season, had a only 13 yards in the first half as Marist jumped out to a 42-0 halftime lead.
"The schedule was difficult," Marist coach Ron Dawczak said of the competition the RedHawks faced while playing in the Chicago Catholic League/East Suburban Catholic Conference. "Our record was 5-4, but we were playing some of the best teams in the state and competed really well and could have pulled out some of those wins. Once you get in the playoffs, everybody starts 0-0."
Marist started quick. The Rams faced a fourth-and nine from midfield on their opening drive and on a fake punthad a man open for a pass, but it was dropped. The RedHawks took over at their own 47 and Watkins was off to the races after his initial burst through the line.
"I saw that the linebacker was edging up and I knew if we hit it right the play would work," Watkins said. "It was open. The offensive line did a phenomenal job all night."
Juniors Patrick Coogan and Jack Harmon along with seniors Tom Kapa, Ryan Meehan and Sean Quarterman opened holes. They led the way for 407 yards on the ground – in the first half.
"Our guys have kind of established as an identity as a power running team," Dawczak said "Those guys open up great holes and they're playing really, really well."
That showed again on Marist's next possession. Senior quarterback Hayden Mikesell scampered 46-yards for a TD midway through the quarter. Then, with 33.5 seconds to play in the quarter, Mikesell hit freshman wide receiver Carnell Tate with a 12-yard touchdown pass.
"I just have to credit the offensive line," Mikesell said. "They dominated. It all starts there."
On the first drive of the second quarter, Watkins followed his blocks for a touchdown plunge from a yard out on fourth down.
Following a fumble recovery on the kickoff, Mikesell then hit senior AJ Markett with a 20-yard scoring pass to make it 35-0. Markett burst up the middle for an 18-yard TD run with 2:57 to play in the first half and it was 42-0.
Watkins finished with 13 carries for 179 yards and the two TDs. Markett had eight carries for 128 yards with the touchdown catch and run. Mikesell only attempted four passes, completing three of them for 36-yards and the two touchdowns. He added two carries for 60 yards and the touchdown.
Many of Marist’s starters were pulled the game when it was 42-0. The second half was played with a running clock. The Rams avoided the shutout when senior wide receiver Armoni Gilford scored from seven yards out on a sweep to the right with 6:50 to play.
Junior running back Jamari Grant galloped in from 27 yards out with 2:28 left in the game for a final touchdown for the RedHawks.
After making the Class 8A semifinals last season, Marist hopes to make another deep run.
"We just stuck to the game plan but there's always room for improvement," Mikesell said. "I just listen to the coaches and go with the plan. I have a lot of faith in this team."