NEW LENOX – Zack Martinelli's resilient jog to the Kaneland sideline late Saturday afternoon detoured into a stumbling embrace of teammate Shane Jorgensen before Martinelli knew it.
The Knights figured avoiding a shutout in their Class 5A second-round playoff game at Lincoln-Way West wouldn't be an issue. With the way the team was playing football this fall, that confidence was warranted.
Still, reality struck Martinelli in the final moments of the top-seeded Knights' 31-15 defeat, the first of what is now a completed season. The score ballooned from 7-0 Warriors to 17-0, and stood 31-0 in favor of the hosts until Martinelli snagged a nine-yard scoring pass from Tyler Carlson with 2:06 remaining.
"I wasn't going to end on a low note and have a zero up there. I just wanted to keep going, just give it all I've got all the way to the end," Martinelli said. "I knew every single one of the seniors wanted to be out there and do all they could until the end, and we laid it on the line. We just didn't have it our way today."
Kaneland players aren't easily accustomed to that refrain. The program's most veteran seniors lost just three times in their varsity careers, falling to eventual state champion Montini in successive state semifinals in 2010-11 before Saturday's stunner.
With Montini on the ropes against the Knights' longtime rival, Sycamore, for much of the afternoon, a sense of a different 2012 script was emerging. It evaporated just as quickly.
Right around the time the Broncos escaped the Spartans with a game-winning field goal in the closing seconds, Lincoln-Way West (8-3) advanced to the quarterfinals for the first time in the program's four seasons. A signature win never seemed so comfortable.
"No, we weren't surprised at all," Warriors all-purpose senior Lavonte Blackful said. "We know how good we are. I mean, no team can scare us. We've got a good defense, offense. Perfect offensive line up front."
Blackful provided the flash against the Knights (10-1), bookending the Warriors' scoring on runs of 26 and 82 yards while contributing lengthy interception, punt and kickoff returns that set up Lincoln-Way West on other occasions.
Ultimately, the less gaudy line play made the biggest difference. Ninth-seeded Lincoln-Way West handled Kaneland's bulky offensive and defensive fronts by outgaining the Knights, 320-188, while registering nine sacks and three interceptions of Kaneland quarterback Drew David.
Coaches lauded both lines during Kaneland's run to a third straight unbeaten regular season and Northern Illinois Big 12 East title, but watched as Lincoln-Way west got push against either unit on nearly every snap.
After David completed his first two pass attempts – to Martinelli and Dylan Nauert covering 22 yards – the Warriors' defensive line dug in. The offense responded with an opening-drive touchdown that put the Knights behind early and forced coach Tom Fedderly's hand as a play-caller. While Lincoln-Way West braced for Kaneland's recently-unveiled Wildcat and jumbo schemes, the Knights never left the spread formation.
"We knew coming in that they were pretty hard to block, so I really was thinking that I had to mix things up and try to keep it off-balance," Fedderly said. "And then we kind of got behind to where we pretty much had to throw most of the time, and that was to their strength, really, with their guys up front."
To be sure, the Warriors chipped away with a well-conditioned front four that offered junior strong-side end Josh Hilt (6-1, 220) as its biggest member.
"The fronts that our coaches installed and the practice, the drills that they have us doing, it's unreal," senior weak-side tackle Matt Soraghan said. "The practices are harder than the games, and it's awesome, because we're not winded at all. We're going 100 miles an hour. But their O-line gets tired, and that's when big plays happen."
Kaneland added a second touchdown against the Warriors reserves when Carlson, relieving David, scored on a 4-yard run with 46 seconds to play. Fedderly admitted David, a junior who led last season's semifinal run, "was not 100 percent" as he navigated a broken thumb on his right throwing hand in recent weeks.
David suffered the injury during a practice entering the Knights' Week 8 game against Sycamore, a contest Kaneland won convincingly with David sitting out as a precaution. He returned the following week and captained a game-winning drive in the closing minutes that helped Kaneland past then-unbeaten Morris for the conference title.
As they struggled to protect their leader Saturday, the Knights felt for David.
"Drew kept fighting, you know," Martinelli said. "He went through a lot today. He got hit and he just kept getting up. And I give him so much credit. He kept on showing his toughness and he kept battling. He wouldn't go down."
Until Saturday, the Knights thought they'd be repeating that final part about themselves en route to the state finals.
"This one hurts, there's no doubt about it," Fedderly said, "but we're pretty proud of our kids."