All season, the Fenwick High School football team’s offense has received the hype and publicity, thanks to its’ talented playmakers.
But the Friars have also been consistently solid on defense, which clamped down as Fenwick defeated Sycamore 17-6 on Nov. 20 in the IHSA Class 5A state semifinals at Triton College.
It is the first time in program history that the team has advanced to an IHSA state championship game in football.
“Our defense [led by coordinator Titcus Pettigrew] has been way underrated all year, and they’re finally starting to get some recognition,” said Fenwick coach Matt Battaglia. “It feels good, but it also feels like we’re supposed to be [in the finals].”
“We never second guess our defense. They do their job when they need to,” added Fenwick quarterback Kaden Cobb. “If they hold a team to six points like today, we’ll win as long as we do our job [offensively].”
After a scoreless first quarter, it took only two plays into the second for Fenwick (11-2) to get on the board as Cobb’s 51-yard pass to Max Reese set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Danny Kent (23 carries, 70 yards).
Then after the defense stopped Sycamore, Cobb connected with Bryan Hunt Jr. on three consecutive passes, the last being a 38-yard touchdown that gave the Friars a 14-0 lead at the 7:47 mark.
“Honestly, I was a little bit gassed after catching a couple of balls,” Hunt said. “So I thought I’d just run down the field. Then I looked up and the ball was right there. It was a big play for us.”
Sycamore (9-4) appeared to have changed the momentum in the third quarter. After holding Fenwick on downs, the Spartans went on a seven-play, 69-yard drive that ended with a 3-yard touchdown run by Sam Carlson. However, the two-point conversion failed, leaving the score 14-6 Fenwick at the 4:06 mark.
On Fenwick’s next possession, Sycamore defensive back Dawson Alexander recovered a Hunt fumble on the Spartans’ 40. But the Friars’ defense came up with a huge three-and-out, keyed by Mirko Jaksic’s breakup of an Eli Meier pass.
Fenwick then went on a lengthy march, running 18 plays in almost 10 minutes. Jacque Walls’ 27-yard run set up Iain Ramage’s 31-yard field goal to give the Friars a 17-6 lead with 3:45 remaining in the game.
Sycamore would quickly reach the Fenwick 20 on the next drive, but Conor Paris came up with a 10-yard sack of Meier on second down. The Friars then sealed the deal by forcing Meier into consecutive incompletions, resulting in a turnover on downs.
Cobb completed his first 10 passes of the game and went 17-of-24 for 244 yards and a touchdown.
“Kaden’s our leader,” Battaglia said. “He understands the game of football, which makes my job way easier than it should be.”
Wide receivers Hunt (6 receptions, 85 yards), Eian Pugh (5 receptions, 66 yards) and Reese (5 receptions, 73 yards; 2 rushes, 16 yards) had stellar games for Fenwick.
The Friars added 142 yards rushing to amass 386 total yards for the day. Defensively, they sacked Meier six times, including four by Suleiman Abuaqel and another by Jaksic, while limiting Sycamore’s powerful running attack.
“Our defensive line really played good football,” Paris added. “[Sycamore] couldn’t find many holes. Suleiman has meant a lot. He’s coming through for us at the end.”
As time expired, the Fenwick fans were jubilant. Among them were several former Friar players, including Pat Hart, Jacob Keller, Conner Lillig and Michael O’Laughlin.
Fenwick will meet Kankakee (13-0), a 41-14 winner over downstate Morton in the other semifinal, for the Class 5A title Nov. 27. Kickoff is set for 10 a.m. at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, a place very familiar to Battaglia. He played there as an offensive lineman from 2010-13 and was part of the 2012 team that went to the Orange Bowl.
“It’s my home,” he said. “The stage is not going to be too big for me.”
While the players are thrilled to advance downstate, they know the job is not yet done.
“It feels great. We’re ready to bring the state championship home,” Paris said.
“It’s a big achievement,” added Cobb. “We wanted to practice on Thanksgiving Day, and we earned it.”