After last season’s controversial loss against Plainfield North unfairly ended the Fenwick High School football team’s run in the Class 7A semifinals, the returning Friars made it a goal to finish the job and win an IHSA state title for the graduating seniors.

And while this year’s team had an undeniably inconsistent regular season, the Friars entered this year’s postseason feeling confident. After all, Fenwick won its two previous games coupled with the momentum of earning a share of the Chicago Catholic League Green Division championship with Montini.

All those good feelings were doused just 15 seconds into the start of Fenwick’s first-round 7A game at Wheaton North on Saturday, Oct. 28 The Falcons’ Christian Halstead returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown to put the Friars in a hole they never recovered from as Wheaton North prevailed 35-7.

The Falcons (8-2) advance to a 7A second-round matchup at Batavia, while the Friars (6-4) drop down to the Prep Bowl Playoffs.

Fenwick coach Gene Nudo felt the reasons for the loss were obvious.

“Any time you start a game with a kickoff return that goes for a touchdown against you, it’s tough to overcome,” Nudo said. “The kickoff return was a big play, a long touchdown run against us was a big play, and the touchdown on an interception return against us was a big play. We also had the ball twice in the (Wheaton North) red zone and didn’t come up with any points. That was big, too.

“Those are the differences between a team that wins and a team that loses,” Nudo added. “Wheaton North is a good football team and deserves the credit. They didn’t make the mistakes that we made.”

The Fenwick players agreed with Nudo’s assessment of the game.

“Wheaton North is a great team,” senior wide receiver Michael O’Laughlin said. “They have a lot of depth. We just didn’t come out strong and they took advantage. The defense and offense fought their hearts out, but things just didn’t work out in our favor.”

Senior running back Jason Ivery added. “We put it all on the line. The seniors, we gave it all we had. We shot ourselves in the foot. It just wasn’t our night tonight. They were a better team than us.”

After Halstead’s TD return and Trenton Hegranes’ PAT gave Wheaton North a 7-0 lead, the Friars went on a promising march that covered 64 yards in 13 plays while using up over eight minutes. The drive stalled on a 4th-and-goal from the Wheaton North 2-yard line when quarterback Danny Cronin’s pass into the end zone fell incomplete and resulted in a turnover on downs.

The Falcons’ first drive was very impressive, going 98 yards in nine plays, all runs by running back Sam Singleton (including a 64-yard burst from the Falcons’ 9). His 2-yard touchdown run gave the Falcons a 14-0 lead with 10:47 left in the first half.

The deficit worsened for Fenwick on its next drive when Cronin tossed an interception to Jackson Gray that was returned 28 yards for a touchdown. Hegranes’ PAT made it 21-0.

On the Friars’ next possession, Cronin connected with O’Laughlin three times for 44 yards on a 7-play, 78-yard march capped by Cronin’s 8-yard TD run. Brian Dowd’s PAT cut the deficit to 21-7 with 6:06 to go before halftime.

Wheaton North’s ensuing possession lasted just one play, but it turned out to be a backbreaking one for the Friars. The Falcons’ Antowon Tolbert bursted up the middle for a 65-yard TD just 19 seconds after the Friars’ score to restore a 3-touchdown lead.

The Friars entered the Falcons’ red zone again before halftime, but couldn’t score.

On the first play of the fourth quarter, Wheaton North quarterback Rhett Netzer threw a 52-yard touchdown pass to receiver Alex Adams. Hegranes’ fifth extra point concluded the scoring at 35-7.

Statistically, Cronin completed 9 of 21 passes for 152 yards and Ivery rushed for 87 yards on 23 carries. O’Laughlin had six catches for 115 yards. Lorenzano Blakeney led Fenwick defensively with 5.5 tackles and Michael Leopold contributed 3.5 tackles.

Despite the outcome, Nudo praised his team for its accomplishments this fall.

“It was a great season,” he said. “Nobody thought our kids would win the conference. I’m very proud of our kids. There were different things that happened during the course of the season when guys had to show their character, and they continued to show it all year.”

Although the Friars can no longer win a state championship this season, they are eligible to compete in the Prep Bowl Playoffs, where the Catholic League playoff winner meets the Public League playoff winner the day after Thanksgiving. Nudo confirmed that the Friars will honor their commitment to the Catholic League and participate.

For Ivery and the other seniors, the dashed dream of hoisting a state trophy at Northern Illinois University Thanksgiving weekend will always linger.

“A Prep Bowl title can be a highlight, but our eyes were set on being at NIU for the last weekend,” Ivery said. “We wanted to get there for last year’s seniors.”

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