By Jason Maholy
St. Laurence knew defeating Hillcrest in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs would require containing dynamic Hawks’ running back Mar’Keise Irving.
The Vikings didn’t exactly do that, but the assist they received from Irving’s grabby teammates opened the door to potentially upset a team that has state championship aspirations.
Irving gashed the St. Laurence defense for 216 yards and added 65 yards on three receptions, but he found the end zone only once – on a 30-yard pass from quarterback Robert Myles. Holding penalties on Hillcrest that negated three would-be touchdowns by Irving had an arguably greater impact on the game than the junior running back’s rare talent, as they helped keep the Vikings within striking distance before the Hawks escaped with an 18-15 victory on Nov. 1 in Country Club Hills.
Senior running back Darius Dawson had 10 carries for 63 yards and picked up the scoring slack for the Hawks with touchdown runs of 9 and 17. Hillcrest will play at Fenwick this Saturday in the second round.
Nate Thomas led the Vikings with 17 carries for 118 yards and two touchdowns. Junior quarterback Darius Wilson ran 10 times for 75 yards.
St. Laurence senior defensive back Brandon Wilson had two interceptions.
Thomas’ second touchdown run, a 16-yard spurt up the middle, followed by his 2-point conversion run, drew St. Laurence within three points with 6:30 to go in the game.
Hillcrest drove to the Vikings’ 10-yard line on their next possession, but a tough defensive stand led to a turnover on downs with just under two minutes to play.
St. Laurence had a chance to keep the ensuring drive alive, but on 4th-and-13 from deep in Hawks’ territory, Aaron Wofford couldn’t hang onto a pass from Wilson, clinching the win for Hillcrest.
The Hawks nearly undermined their own efforts with penalties at the most inopportune times. Irving had a 95-yard punt return for a touchdown, an 80-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and a 49-yard scoring run called back because of holding. Hillcrest scored on only one of those possessions during which the penalties occurred.
The Vikings’ season will continue in the Chicago Catholic League playoffs.
St. Laurence rebounded this season under first-year head coach Adam Nissen to win five games and make the playoffs, after going 3-6 and missing the IHSA postseason for the first time in four years in 2018. Of the Vikings’ five losses, four came by a combined nine points – one-point losses to Joliet Catholic and Providence, a four-point loss to Benet, and the three-point setback to Hillcrest. The other loss was 56-28 to unbeaten Nazareth, the defending Class 7A champ.
The Vikings appear to have a bright future ahead of the them, with several starters potentially returning next season. Those include quarterback Wilson, who took big steps this year and thrived in Nissen’s offense; Thomas, a powerful back who is a load to bring down, and is a threat running and receiving; and wide receivers Wofford and Jalen Hamilton. The offensive and defensive lines could also return multiple starters.
Brother Rice 28, Bartlett 8
Willie Shaw ran through the muck for touchdowns of 11 and 14 yards, and senior defensive lineman Alex Roche had an interception as the Crusaders rolled over the host Hawks in first-round Class 8A action.
Rice will have a challenge on its hands in the second round when they host South Elgin (9-1) at 5 p.m. Saturday. The Storm defeated Oswego East, 35-8, in their first-round game.
South Elgin is the highest-scoring team in the Class 8A field, having entered the playoffs averaging just shy of 50 points per game; and they have the defense to complement their offense, as they have shut out six of their 10 opponents while allowing only 33 points on the season.
The Crusaders’ Catholic League/ESCC schedule have prepared them for any test they’ll face in the playoffs, especially against teams from inferior conferences like the Upstate Eight, from which South Elgin hails. The Storm’s only loss this season was a 17-14 setback to Bartlett in Week 8.
Richards 20, Washington 16
The fourth-seeded Bulldogs got perhaps a little more than they expected from the Panthers, and overcame deficits of 10-6 and 16-13 to advance to the second round in Class 6A.
Senior running back Leshon Williams had a pair of 10-yard touchdown runs, the first to put Richards up 13-10 and the second to give them the lead for good, 20-26, late in the third quarter.
The Bulldogs will host Peoria at 7 p.m. Friday in Oak Lawn in a battle of nine-win teams. The Lions vanquished Shepard, 78-58, in the first round with a record-setting performance. The 78 points are the most ever scored in a 6A playoff game, and the 136 combined points are the most ever scored in an IHSA postseason contest.
Peoria came into the playoffs scoring 53.6 points per game, but as the Astros proved they can be scored on, and have allowed the fourth-most points of the 32 teams in the 6A bracket.