Saturday night’s IHSA Class 8A second-round game between Oak Park and River Forest and Brother Rice in Chicago was one of the most anticipated games of the weekend. Despite the wide disparity in seeding, the No.16 seed Huskies and top-seeded Crusaders appeared to be evenly matched.
The game lived up to expectations as a close defensive battle for three quarters. Unfortunately for OPRF, the host Crusaders pulled away in the fourth quarter en route to a 27-17 win.
OPRF (8-3) hasn’t won more than one state playoff game in a season since 1985 when the Huskies advanced to the 6A quarterfinals.
“We’re right there. So much of it is about matchups,” OPRF coach John Hoerster said about the Huskies’ postseason struggles. “Playing against a great team like Brother Rice on the road is tough. A few different bounces and things could’ve gone differently. We had some opportunities, but we just couldn’t cash in on them.”
After the Huskies punted on their opening possession, Brother Rice methodically marched down the field. The drive stalled inside the OPRF 10-yard line. The Crusaders faked a field goal attempt, instead running an option play which failed.
After a scoreless first quarter, Brother Rice scored early in the second quarter on senior quarterback John Bean’s beautifully lofted 48-yard touchdown pass to Dylan Summers at the 8:37 mark. Ramon Valdez’s extra point gave the Crusaders a 7-0 lead.
On the next drive, OPRF quarterback Jaden McGill threw a deep pass that was intercepted by Jayshon Means at the Brother Rice 10.
The Crusaders (11-0) embarked on a 90-yard scoring drive that lasted over six minutes. Bean capped off the drive on a 1-yard keeper that extended the Brother Rice lead to 14-0 with nine seconds left until halftime.
Remarkably, OPRF answered with a touchdown in the closing seconds of the first half to get right back in the game.
After returning a squib kickoff to midfield, McGill drew a roughing the passer penalty as time expired. The untimed down gave OPRF an opportunity, which was converted when Toby Kunkel took a pitch from McGill and heaved a 38-yard pass towards the end zone. Senior wide receiver Trevon Brown snagged the ball with several defenders around him for a Hail Mary TD to make the score 14-6. Henry Darrow’s PAT was blocked.
Brother Rice fumbled the ball on the opening kickoff in the second half. OPRF settled for a 36-yard field goal by Darrow to whittle the Huskies’ deficit to 14-9 with 10:31 left in the third quarter.
“We took the field goal,” Hoerster said. “We were thinking if we stopped them and got the ball back, a touchdown would win it for us.”
Forcing turnovers on the next two Brother Rice possessions, OPRF couldn’t take advantage of its opportunities.
“You’ve got to take advantage of those turnovers,” Hoerster said. “You’ve got to get touchdowns instead of field goals, get first downs when you need them. Unfortunately, we didn’t take advantage of the opportunities the defense provided us.”
Escaping trouble on those occasions, Brother Rice engineered a 9-play, 67-yard scoring drive that chewed up over four minutes off the clock. The Cornell-bound Summers made a spectacular one-handed TD catch, pushing the Crusaders’ lead to 21-9 with 9:31 left in the fourth quarter.
Like Bean earlier, McGill threw a pair back-to-back picks the rest of the way, which quelled any chances for a Huskies’ comeback.
McGill’s second interception was returned by Myles Jones deep into OPRF territory. On the next play, Bean found the end zone on a 9-yard run to put the game out of reach at 27-9 with 2:41 remaining in the fourth quarter.
With 39.8 seconds left, McGill connected with senior wide receiver Craig Shelton on a 24-yard touchdown pass. Keith Robinson’s two-point conversion run accounted for the game’s final scoring.
“(Brother Rice) did a great job upfront,” Hoerster said. “Their linebackers did a nice job of playing downhill. They got penetration on us and we had a difficult time. That’s just a tough group of defenders.”
Despite the loss, OPRF had a terrific season. The Huskies finished 8-3 with a share of the West Suburban Conference Silver Division championship and notable wins over Glenbard West and New Trier.
Hoerster credits the successful campaign to the Huskies’ dedicated senior class.
“I’m going to miss the hell out of them,” Hoerster said. “It’s an amazing group of young men. Going into the season, we had a lot of questions that needed to be answered. We didn’t know how good we could be. But we knew we were going to have tremendous leadership from the senior class.”
Although the Huskies will graduate several key players (notably on defense), some top players return next season. McGill, Nazareth Bryant, Kunkel and offensive lineman Fabian Gonzalez, along with defensive leader Nahlyee Bryant, are back in 2019.