By Marty Farmer
Trailing Glenbard West by 13 points with seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, The Oak Park and River Forest football desperately needed a spark. The outlook was decidedly bleak factoring in the Hilltoppers' pedigree of football excellence.
Enter center stage, Xavier Rowe. The Huskies' senior wide receiver snagged a quick-hitting pass from quarterback Lloyd Yates and raced 41 yards down down the right sideline for a clutch touchdown to whittle the Hilltoppers' lead to 20-14.
"At first, I thought I was going to get tackled but I just kept my head down and broke it [for a touchdown]," Rowe said. "We literally were one play away from beating the Class 7A state champs [Glenbard West]. We're going to watch film, hit the weight room and get better for the next game."
Glenbard West showed its state championship mettle down the stretch, holding off the Huskies 20-14 Friday at Oak Park Stadium, breaking up OPRF's bid for an undefeated season while taking sole possesion of first place in the West Suburban Silver at 4-0. The Huskies are 3-1 in the league.
OPRF had a chance to pull out a victory in the closing seconds, but Yates' pass into the end zone intended for Mike Hayden was batted down by Glenbard West defensive back Hayden Carlson on a fourth-and-14 from the Hilltoppers 23 with 24 seconds left in the fourth quarter. The Hilltoppers took over on downs and ran out the clock.
Early on, OPRF appeared in control with a clear advantage in time possession during the first quarter. Yates scored on a 6-yard run up the middle staking the Huskies to a 7-0 lead at 3:10 of the first quarter.
The Hilltoppers responded with 20 unanswered points via quarterback Drew Vogg's 14-yard strike to Jermon Kindle Joyner and a 1-yard run by Kindle Joyner (both touchdowns in the second quarter), and Scott Andrews' 8-yard scamper into the end zone with 9:20 left in the game. Andrews finished with a game-high 103 yards on 25 carries and Vogg went 9 of 17 passing for 82 yards as Glenbard West won its 16th straight conference game.
Defensively, OPRF held up well against the Hilltoppers' vaunted running game featuring mutiple backs in Kindle Joyner, Andrews, Donahvon Vaughn and Devonte Toney. Jamal Baggett led the Huskies with nine tackles, while Emonte Logan and Nathan Godwin contributed seven and six tackles, respectively.
"This game was a learning experience," Logan said. "We came into the game expecting to win. We played with a positive attitude, but just came up one play short. I remind my teammates all the time we have to play for each other every play. I was injured all last season, so every game this year means so much to me. I'm a captain and I have to set an example for everybody on the field."
In addition to several solid returns on special teams, OPRF wide receiver/linebacker Simmie Cobbs blocked two extra points by the Hilltoppers.
"We had a good game plan going into the game," Yates said. "We called a couple good plays but we just couldn't execute fully. We felt like we should have had this game. Our crowd was great and it was a very intense game."
On a team loaded with star power including players like Baggett, Cobbs, Andre Lee, Rowe, Justin Starks and several others, the unflappable Yates has emerged as a true leader under center.
"Everything is starting to move slower for Lloyd," OPRF head coach John Hoerster said. "He's starting to make better decisions about knowing who to get the ball to and when. He's throwing catchable balls and making the right reads."
After the game, Glenbard West coach Chad Hetlet visited the Huskies' post-game huddle, letting the players know how much respect he has for their ability and effort, as well as the fast-rising OPRF football program. Hoerster also saluted the Hilltoppers' performance after the game.
Symbolically, the coaches' mutual respect may serve as a harbinger of the conference's best rivalry for years to come.
"Chad is an in-conference guy who has been extremely supportive and helpful to me," Hoerster said. "If you asked our kids who is the classiest team we play, there's no doubt it's Glenbard West. We're striving for to reach their level. I think we're right there, we just ran out of downs. Even though we didn't come out on top [tonight], some great things happened for our program."
OPRF (5-1, 3-1 West Suburban Silver) turns its attention to Lyons Township. The visiting Huskies will have their hands full with an LTHS team that has beaten Hinsdale Central and Downers Grove North the past two weeks. The Lions (3-3, 2-1) are in pursuit of another playoff berth (LTHS has advanced to the Class 8A state quarterfinals the past three years) after a sluggish start this season. Quarterback Tommy Fiedler, Division I-caliber running back Leonard Ross and dangerous wide receivers Marcell Kellum and Matt Mrazek headline coach Kurt Weinberg's fast-paced offense.
"Our guys will get a few hours after this game to lick their wounds because they deserve that," Hoerster said after Friday's game. "Then, we have to get ready for LT. There's just so time in our conference to feel sorry for yourself. No program is ever really down. Our conference is strong top to bottom."
Despite the loss to the Glenbard West, Friday's game served as a turning point of sorts for the OPRF football program. OPRF Athletic Director John Steltzer estimated the Huskies-Hilltoppers showdown drew a crowd of approximately 5,000 fans, including several past graduates from OPRF to celebrate the school's annual homecoming game.
On another positive note, the OPRF sophomore team routed Glenbard West 55-20, providing further proof that Hoerster has the Huskies on the fast track to high-end success.