FRANKFORT – Almost all night, unbeaten Lincoln-Way East carried some extra baggage around their field.
But it wasn’t heavy. On the contrary, it was lighter than air. It was the touchdown scored 68 seconds into their 8A semifinal against powerhouse rival Maine South, a score achieved by a pair of alert players.
Start with Max Cesario. The senior remembered what he had seen on video during the week, that there was a hole in South’s line on field-goal attempts, and that it could be exploited.
He did so, racing in to block Aiden Carolan’s 44-yard attempt cleanly.
Then Kwaku Appiah came along, at speed, grabbed the football and raced down the east sideline, in front of the Hawks’ bench and fans. He ran 59 yards for a stunning touchdown that East used all night as a comfortable cushion en route to a 24-14 victory and a berth in the 8A championship game for the first time in five years.
“It set the tone for the game after they got the turnover on the first play,” Cesario said.
“What a way to ignite us,” Griffins coach Rob Zvonar said. “It’s a rallying point for the defense to perform under adverse situations.”
“Coach [Jeremy] Vestal is our field-goal block coach, and we always practice that,” Appiah said. “Come off the edge, and he says you never know. To do that in the first quarter, to get it going fast like that, it got momentum on our side, and we kept building off that.”
It was the third meeting of the two powers in 14 games. Maine South won last year’s playoff encounter, but East is 2-0 against the Hawks (11-2) this season.
“We just wanted it more, because they took us on our home field last year. Not this year.”
The Griffins (13-0) play Loyola Academy (12-1), a 17-10 winner at Edwardsville, in the 8A championship at 7 p.m. Saturday at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb. It will be the first meeting of the two showcase teams.
The block and score was vital, leading a superlative defensive performance, with the East offense outgaining Maine South, 248-246, and more vitally, controlling the ball.
Dangerous Hawks passer John O’Sullivan was 17 of 37 for 162 yards – hitting Fotis Kokosioulis on seven occasions – but the Griffins enjoyed a 95-84 rushing yardage edge, and quarterback Brendan Morrissey hit on 8 of 10 passes for 153 yards on a windblown night. Even Kokosioulis’ 72 yards rushing couldn’t make up for that.
All those numbers sawed off. It all came back to the edge the Griffins gained on the Cesario-Appiah collaboration.
South closed to 7-6 on Jimmy Bartell’s 10-yard touchdown reception, but the Griffins expanded their lead on Ryan Scianna’s 53-yard reception from Morrissey and a 20-yard Dominic Dzioban field goal. East went up, 24-6, on Turner Pallisard’s 2-yard touchdown pass from Morrissey, which became important when Paul Sasso scored on a 1-yard plunge with 4:53 remaining. A
two-point conversion put the Hawks within 10 points, and they could get no closer.
Morrissey collided with Griffins guard Anthony Sottosano before unloading the 53-yard strike to Scianna, who was open by at least six yards, catching the ball on the 20 and racing in.
“I just looked up and he’s alone,” Morrissey said. “I just threw it.”
Zvonar’s been to the championship before. His players have only seen it on television.
“We didn’t duck anybody,” Zvonar said. “I don’t think there’s much we haven’t seen. Maybe we’ll get the fancy buses this week instead of the yellow limousines.”
They’ve earned it. Extra baggage and all.