By Jason Maholy
Heading into Evergreen Park’s regular season finale against winless Oak Forest, Mustangs coach Jerry Verde cautioned his then 4-4 squad there are three teams you don’t want to see when you’re fighting for your playoff life on the final day of the season.
“The worst team is another 4-4 and the second is an 8-0,” Verde recalled. “But the third is an 0-8.”
His warning proved to be sound, as the Bengals gave Evergreen all they could muster in attempting to stave off finishing without a win. The two teams traded blows throughout, but the Mustangs withstood the challenge and emerged with a 35-26 victory and a berth in the Class 5A bracket for the second consecutive season.
Evergreen will play at Sycamore (8-1) at 2 p.m. Saturday.
Advancing to the playoffs did not come easy. Oak Forest took an early 8-0 lead in the first quarter and closed it to 28-26 midway through the fourth. The Mustangs essentially clinched the game on a 20-yard touchdown pass from Devin Turner to Matt Walsh on 4th-and-12 with under a minute to play.
“I knew their kids wouldn’t back down,” Verde said. “They’ve been close a few times this year and been close against some pretty decent teams. They were physical and they have some playmakers who hit us for some big plays tonight. So we knew what we were in for.
“Thank goodness the offense came and played today. It was a see-saw game and we showed a lot of character tonight.”
The return of Devin Turner provided a spark. The sophomore quarterback hadn’t played since sustaining an injury in Week 4, and although he needed a quarter or so to find his rhythm, he eventually heated up and threw three touchdown passes. His first was a 65-yard bomb to fellow sophomore Elijah Matthews, who hit in stride down the left sideline, and the other two came with the pressure on in the decisive final quarter.
Matthews caught two touchdown passes, as did Walsh, a junior wide receiver who has struggled at times this season.
“Walsh has had a tough season, so that was awesome,” Verde said. “He hasn’t had the season he was hoping to have and that really picked us up. That was just gigantic (to score) at the end of the game.
Walsh said his contributions were a big lift for his confidence.
“I started the season off great, but throughout the season I went down a little bit,” he said. “Today picked me way up and I’m ready for the playoffs. We kept fighting hard and we didn’t give in at all and that’s why we won the game.”
The Mustangs will have their work cut out for them against Sycamore, whose stingy defense has posted five shutouts and allows a paltry 4.3 points per game, lowest in Class 5A. The Interstate Eight champs have outscored their opponents 330-39 and has wins over four playoff teams including Morris (7-2), Kaneland (7-2) and Washington (6-3).