SYCAMORE – Sycamore senior defensive back Abraham Lesniewski took a few steps before emotionally falling to the ground.
The Spartans are headed to the semifinals.
The Sycamore defense made its second goal line stand of the game in overtime and the No. 13 seed Spartans knocked off undefeated top-seed Sterling 29-22 in a wild finish in a Class 5A quarterfinal on Saturday afternoon at Engh Field.
"We knew it was all or nothing because we knew both teams were tired and we needed that stand," said Lesniewski, who had two interceptions on the day. "I don't remember much (after the stop). I just broke down. It was one of the most emotional moments of my life. I can't believe how much we've come together as a team."
The Spartans (8-4) reach their first semifinal since 2013 and fourth one in school history. They host No. 7 Vernon Hills (9-3) after Sycamore needed a win over Rochelle in the regular season finale just to make the playoffs.
"I don't know where to start, I don't know where to start," Sycamore coach Joe Ryan said. "What a great atmosphere. Our kids never quit. There's a lot of times in that game that our guys could have quit and we just kept fighting. We talked about playing 48 minutes and we played more than that, but we took 'er down to the 48 minutes."
The wild finish was emblematic of the backs-against-the-wall postseason for Sycamore – which was the underdog seed in all three wins. After Sterling missed a 25-yard field goal that would have all but sealed the win with two minutes remaining and the Warriors leading 22-14 – the ball bouncing off the right post – the Spartans went 80 yards in nine plays in little over a minute for a touchdown.
Sycamore faced a fourth-and-9 on its own 21 yard line, its season hanging in the balance, and senior quarterback Ty Sulaver led the drive that featured a 28-yard pass to junior Luke Ryan, a 13-yard pass to senior Jordan Tolzin and a 22-yard and 14-yard pass to senior tight end Donovan Smith.
Junior running back Peyton Wiegmann, who finished with 161 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 30 carries, scored on a 4-yard run after breaking a tackle to make it 22-20 with 41 seconds remaining.
Needing the 2-point conversion, the Spartans were called for a delay a game and Sulaver's pass was incomplete but Sterling (11-1) was called for defensive pass interference.
With the ball on the 4-yard line, Sulaver scrambled on a designed pass and dove into the end zone – absorbing a brutal hit by the Sterling defense to send the game to overtime.
"I don't know what I was thinking – it was worth it, it was worth it, but that hurt," said Sulaver, who finished 12 for 21 with 125 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 53 yards. He had 75 of those passing yards on the final drive of regulation.
Wiegmann scored his third touchdown of the game in overtime on a third-and-goal from the 4-yard line to put Sycamore ahead 29-22 and Sterling quarterback Trey Morse was stopped on fourth-and-goal from the 1 to send the Spartans players and fans into bedlam.
"My gut is killing me, these games are only fun afterwards," Joe Ryan said. "I'm just so happy for the kids. I'm so proud of them."
It was the second time in the game that Sterling was stuffed while facing a fourth-and-goal from the 1. In the first quarter, junior running back Latrell Vaughn was stopped for a 2-yard loss. The Spartans answered that by going 97 yards on the ensuing drive that was capped by a 5-yard touchdown by Wiegmann.
Despite the win over the previously undefeated Warriors, who beat Sycamore 38-6 in Week 1, the Spartans didn't play a perfect game.
Leading 7-6 late in the first half, Sulaver was intercepted by sophomore defensive back Alex Duran and the Warriors turned that into a 1-yard touchdown run by Morse with 1:14 left in the second quarter. On the Spartans next drive, they had a 2-yard punt that gave the Warriors the ball on the Sycamore 23 with 8 seconds left and Warriors kicker Antonio Diaz connected on a 40-yard field goal to put them up 16-7 at halftime.
"We're not going to judge it on perfect, we're going to judge it on the scoreboard," Joe Ryan said. "It means we're getting better but if we want to keep winning, we have to tie up those loose ends and we will."
In a game that featured three strong drives by the Sycamore offense, they opened the second half by going 16 plays and Sulaver found Smith in the end zone for a 5-yard touchdown. The Spartans converted on three third downs – including the touchdown pass – and a fourth down to extend the drive and cut the lead to 16-14 and took more than eight minutes off the clock.
However, Sterling answered on the next play and junior running back Nyrell Sullivan scored on a 69-yard run down the right sideline to put the Warriors ahead 22-14.
It was the only offensive play of the quarter for Sterling.
Sycamore had a chance to cut the lead early in the fourth quarter while facing a fourth-and-goal from the one, but the Spartans were called for a false start and a pass by Luke Ryan on a trick play was incomplete.
However, the Spartans' last-minute drive and a stellar defensive performance kept their dramatic run in the playoffs alive. The 22 points are a season-low for the Warriors' offense – they scored 35 against Rochelle in the regular season and were averaging 43 per game in their two playoff wins.
"It makes it sweeter that we're going to the semis, it doesn't matter who you beat," Joe Ryan said. "I think it's vindication for our kids because we knew we weren't as bad as we were Week 1. I think they wanted to prove that and they did that today."