The Fenwick High School football team entered the fourth quarter of its IHSA Class 5A quarterfinal at Nazareth Academy on Nov. 13 clinging to a four-point lead in a stadium where the host Roadrunners have made a habit of winning playoff games.
Nazareth had driven into Friars territory, and senior defensive lineman Suieman Abuaqel knew a big play needed to be made to turn the tide.
Little did he know that he would be the one to get it done. Nazareth quarterback Logan Malachuk attempted a screen pass on the first play of the quarter, but Abuaqel read it, intercepted the ball and returned 58 yards to seal a 28-17 victory for Fenwick, which advances to the state semifinals for the fourth time in history, joining the 1981, 1995 and 2016 teams.
“I saw the running back with my peripheral vision and slid to my left,” Abuaqel said. “The ball came right to me, and I just took off. It’s my first touchdown ever, and it was a great play for the team.”
“Suieman got everyone’s heart jumping,” said Fenwick quarterback Kaden Cobb of Abuaqel’s momentum-changing play. “We needed that. It got everyone back on track, and we finished the deal.”
The Friars (10-2) fell behind 10-0 after one quarter as Malachuk connected with Justin Taylor on a 44-yard touchdown pass and Zack Hayes booted a 26-yard field goal. But Fenwick remained composed and gradually gained control.
“We preach it all the time — stay calm and collected,” Cobb said. “We hadn’t been down by 10 the whole season, and when it happened, I told the guys we’ve got to come back, stay strong, and see what happens.”
What happened was a Fenwick comeback in the second quarter. On fourth-and-goal, Cobb (22-of-25, 174 yards, 2 TD passing; 11 carries, 49 yards rushing) scored on a 6-yard run at the 10:11 mark. After getting a three-and-out defensively, the Friars drove deep into Nazareth territory, but Iain Ramage’s 35-yard field goal try was partially blocked and fell short.
Fenwick’s defense forced another quick punt that gave the offense the ball at its own 47. On fourth and 5 from the Nazareth 20, Cobb found Max Reese (8 receptions, 59 yards) in the end zone for a touchdown and a 14-10 halftime lead.
“That was huge,” said Fenwick coach Matt Battaglia of the touchdown pass with :58 left in the half. “It gave us the lead and swung all the momentum towards us.”
The Friars tacked on more points in the second half as Cobb found Pat Durkin open for a 3-yard touchdown pass on another fourth-and-goal play that capped a 12-play, 65-yard drive. Fenwick seemed in control with a 21-10 lead at the 7:32 mark of the third quarter.
However, it took Nazareth just 42 seconds to get back into the game. Malachuk, after dropping a snap, recovered and threw a 56-yard touchdown pass to Taylor to make the score 21-17.
Fenwick moved the ball deep into Roadrunners territory on the ensuing drive, but a pair of penalties stalled things and forced the Friars to punt. A Kaleb Miller 14-yard run and a Quentrell Harris 25-yard reception had Nazareth at the Fenwick 39 entering the fourth quarter. But Abuaqel’s interception on the first play turned out to be a backbreaker for the Roadrunners.
When Nazareth next got the ball on its 8 with 3:28 left, any faint hopes of a miracle were extinguished as Den Juette picked off Malachuk to effectively end the game.
The Friars outgained Nazareth 367 yards to 278, buoyed by 192 yards on the ground, led by Danny Kent (22 carries, 106 yards). On defense, Will Gladden had an interception as the Friars picked off Malachuk three times on the day.
Fenwick will meet Sycamore in the Class 5A semifinals at Triton College Nov. 20 at 1 p.m. The Spartans (9-3) have shut out in their last two playoff opponents, including 14-0 against St. Patrick in the quarterfinals.
It’s another challenge for the Friars, but they’re eager to return to home after spending the last two weeks on the road.
“The fans, students, and parents always give us a boost,” Abuaqel said. “They remind us of who we’re playing for. It’s going to be an exciting environment.”