By Marty Farmer
The Oak Park and River Forest H.S. football team called on its patented three-pronged mental approach to hold off pesky Lyons Township 31-26 on Saturday.
"Every day in practice and before each game, [OPRF head] coach Hoerster always stresses to us three words: grit, zeal and optimism," OPRF junior quarterback Lloyd Yates said. "He really gets that thinking into our heads and how we need to be an example of those words."
After a titanic Friday night lights battle against Class 7A state champion Glenbard West last week (won by the Hilltoppers 20-14 at Oak Park Stadium), the Huskies occasionally performed as if they were immersed in a Saturday afternoon slumber against LTHS at Bennett Field. Despite a series of solid drives off set by spotty play, the Huskies ultimately persevered enough to earn a critical conference win against a tricky conference rival.
"I know we have some room to grow," Hoerster said, "but when you come in on a Saturday afternoon to a school like LT that's always well-prepared with a great coaching staff for their homecoming game, we're pretty happy to come out of here with a win. I think we're going to be able to watch the [game] film and learn from it on both sides of the ball and on special teams as well."
After LTHS quarterback Tommy Fiedler (26-for-42, 248 yards passing, three touchdowns) tossed a 7-yard touchdown pass to Sam Shea on a slant pattern to cut the Huskies' lead to 24-19 with 5:25 remaining in the game, the Huskies responded with one final decisive drive.
OPRF (6-1, 4-1 West Suburban Silver) went on an 8-play, 76-yard scoring drive capped off by Yates' 26-yard touchdown run up the middle of the field extending the OPRF advantage to 31-19 with 2:26 left in the fourth quarter.
"That last drive was huge, probably the most important one of the game," Yates said. "In the second half, we struggled offensively to move the ball and score. We put out defense in some bad situations, but we knew we were going to win this game. When you believe that you'll play well and win, good things happen."
The Lions, who at 3-4 overall and 2-2 in the West Suburban Silver must win their final two games against Proviso West and York to possibly earn a Class 8A postseason berth, scored a touchdown with 1:10 left in the game when Fiedler rolled out and found Shea again, this time on a 10-yard strike, making the final score 31-26. The past three seasons, LTHS advanced to the Class 8A quarterfinals.
Offensively for OPRF, Yates rushed for 152 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries and completed 9 of 16 passes for 104 yards. Senior running backs Mike Hayden (12 carries, 67 yards, two touchdowns) and Jamal Baggett (11 carries, 61 yards) along with Simmie Cobbs (seven catches, 81 yards) shouldered the rest of the offensive load.
Hayden's touchdown runs of one yard and 17 yards in the first half along with a 10-yard touchdown run by Baggett and a 25-yard-field goal by Sebastian Medala staked the Huskies to a 24-12 halftime lead.
"We had to be mentally prepared because we were coming off a tough loss [to Glenbard West]," Hayden said. "We didn't take LT lightly; they are as good as anybody. Our coaches got us ready with a good game plan, we just went through it and we came out with a victory. We have a lot of weapons on offense so it's never going to be one player's game. Our approach is to spread the ball around to everybody."
On defense, relentless pressure from the Huskies created five sacks, led by sophomore Allen Stallings' 3.5 sacks. The pass-rushing combination of Stallings and senior defensive lineman Andre Lee has wreaked havoc on opposing offenses all season. Sam Cottingham-Beard and Dawon Browley led OPRF with nine tackles apiece against LTHS and its up-tempo offense, while Baggett had nine tackles and Nathan Godwin contributed six.
"We knew coming into this game, LT has a great junior running back with a lot of potential in Leonard Ross. You have to give him credit," Cottingham-Beard said. "Lyons Township runs the spread offense like us, which is what we run in practice so it was true to what our defense does. We really tried to just key in on their key receivers and keep their quarterback in contain. Overall, I think we did a really good job on defense today."
OPRF contained Ross, who has drawn recruiting interest from several Division I football programs, to 66 yards rushing on 17 carries before he left the game in the fourth quarter with a leg injury. Matt Mrazek (seven catches, 66 yards), Shea (five catches, 49 yards) and Marcell Kellum (four catches, 52 yards) served as the left-handed Fiedler's primary passing targets.
OPRF hosts Hinsdale Central next Friday at 7:30 p.m. in another West Suburban Silver Conference matchup. The Huskies have an excellent opportunity to finish out the regular season at 8-1 and garner a high seed in the Class 8A playoffs.
However, Hoerster and the resurgent Huskies are taking it one step at a time, which calls for a good week of practice in preparation for Hinsdale Central. The Red Devils, who have been hampered by injuries, feature two-way linemen Ian Bunting and Brian Allen, who have committed to Michigan and Michigan State, respectively.