FRANKFORT – In this day and age, with all the skill on the offensive side of the ball, football teams everywhere can score points in bunches.
Maine South, for example, entered Saturday night’s Class 8A state semifinal at Lincoln-Way East having averaged a shade under 50 points over its past seven games.
That was against normal human beings, however. There is something almost superhuman about the way the Griffins’ defense operates.
From the time two regular defensive backs combined efforts to block a field-goal attempt and return it
59 yards for a special teams touchdown with 10:52 left in the first quarter, East was pretty much in the driver’s seat. The defense would not allow it to be any other way as the Griffins prevailed, 24-14, to earn a spot in next Saturday night’s 8A championship game against Loyola at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.
Safety Max Cesario stormed in to block the 44-yard field-goal attempt and cornerback Kwaku Appiah picked it up and outran the Hawks’ pursuers the 59 yards to the end zone.
“We have a fantastic field goal block coach,” Cesario said. “We saw it open on film so we practiced it all week. I got through and blocked it.”
With East leading, 14-6, Dugan Bolsoni, the cornerback opposite Appiah, intercepted a pass on the second play of the third quarter to reset the tone.
“I had position on him [Maine South’s Rory Hayes] and he [quarterback John O’Sullivan] threw the ball right to me,” Bolsoni said.
Then in the fourth quarter after the Griffins had gone ahead, 24-6, a kickoff by Dominic Dzioban that soared high into the wind and never was intended to be an onside kick, wound up in Bolsoni’s hands.
“It was a Superman kick,” Bolsoni said. “He kicked it high. It bounced up, and I saw it coming back toward me. I just jumped on it.”
So maybe there were a few of those unusual occurrences happening that involved the East defense. Or maybe they weren’t so unusual. The Griffins make their breaks.
The defensive unit of ends Devin O’Rourke and Ben Revetto, tackles Jaden Hacha and Dylon Shelton, linebackers Gus Christensen, Declan Carr and John Christensen, corners Appiah and Bolsoni and safeties Christensen and Brendan Gallagher allowed a relatively harmless 246 total yards to a team accustomed to piling up much more.
The key on this night was to stop the Hawks’ running game, which meant to maintain focus on all-state back Fotis Kokosioulis. He finished with 72 yards in 15 carries and had only 30 yards on seven receptions.
“We work a lot on the defensive line shutting down the run,” said O’Rourke, a 6-foot-6, 250-pound all-stater who is headed to Northwestern. “We do that and keep pressure on the quarterback, it frees up our cove rages.
“You know, I’ve never cried. Just now, I shed a few tears, I’m so happy.”
O’Rourke and Shelton celebrated in the best way they could, each recording a sack on the final two plays of the game.
“I was working to get a sack the whole game,” O’Rourke said. “And for my teammate Shelton to get one right after me, what a great feeling.”
East coach Rob Zvonar said the ability of the Griffins’ front four to keep pressure on O’Sullivan was key. So was stopping Kokosioulis.
“We knew 41 [Kokosioulis] probably would get his yards, but we thought if we slowed him down enough and didn’t let him break big plays, we could turn it into more of a passing thing, almost like 7-on-7,” Zvonar said.
“Then we didn’t want to get beat over the top. We held them to 14 points, and they are used to scoring a lot more than that.”
Hacha said shutting down opponents is a mindset the Griffins have maintained since Week 1. Maine South visited Frankfort and knocked out East, 34-31, in last year’s quarterfinal.
“It comes down to preparation, too,” Hacha said. “We have a lot of big-time players on our defense. We knew they [Hawks] were going to try to run again so we knew if stopped the run ... we had to stop 41 [Kokosioulis] because he’s their flag carrier. If we stopped him, we were going to come out on top.”
Cesario emphasized how what the Griffins’ defense accomplished is a team effort.
“We wanted to shut down the run and make them throw it into the wind,” he said. “Honestly, the defensive backs played fantastic and shut down the pass, too. They couldn’t do anything. Our front four has been fantastic all season. For them to do that and not make us lock on too long, that helps a lot.”
Eleven Griffins playing as one to form one downright scary defensive unit.
It has helped carry East to within a game of its second state title.
O’Rourke represents Lincoln-Way East on the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association All-State Team that has been announced. He and Bolingbrook defensive tackle Dashaun Mallory were selected in Class 8A.
The Joliet area’s selections in 7A are Lincoln-Way Central running back Mike Morgan and Lincoln-Way West defensive back Jake Price. Providence running back De’Shon Gavin and Celtics linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin were named in 6A.
The area’s 5A selection is Lemont strong safety Gabe Berta. Morris offensive lineman Nolan Feeney was chosen in 4A, and there are three area selections in 3A – Peotone running back/linebacker Chandler Gartner, Wilmington running back/linebacker Conner Dempsay and Wilmington offensive lineman Blake Geiss.
• Dick Goss can be reached at email@example.com.