Oak Park and River Forest's quarterback Owen Watson (10) attempts a pass against Lake Park Friday, September 1, 2023 in Oak Park, IL. (Steve Johnston / Wednesday Journal)

When junior quarterback Owen Watson — starting for injured sophomore Johnny Nelson — connected with classmate Matt Winkelhake for a late touchdown, it seemed the Oak Park and River Forest High School football team would pull out a victory in its home opener over Lake Park Sept. 1.

But the Lancers’ Matthew Rodriguez returned the following kickoff for a touchdown to stun the crowd at Oak Park Stadium. Then the Huskies’ potential game-winning field goal attempt in the final seconds was tipped at the line of scrimmage, resulting in a tough 18-16 defeat.

“I told the team afterwards that there were some really good things that happened,” said John Hoerster, OPRF coach. “We got better from last week (34-13 loss to Fenwick), but we just can’t give up those big plays. That’s from a lack of experience, and when we get to a point when we’re a little more savvy, those kinds of things aren’t going to happen.”

It took three plays for Lake Park (2-0) to find the end zone. Declan Fortuna’s 60-yard dash to the OPRF 4 on the second play from scrimmage set up a four-yard touchdown run by Robert Munaco. However, the Lancers’ point-after hit the right upright, leaving the score 6-0 just 1:12 into the contest.

But the Huskies’ defense settled down, holding Lake Park scoreless the remainder of the first half and forcing two turnovers — a fumble recovery by Jeremiah Williams and an interception by Sam Gray.

Moreover, the Huskies (0-2) gradually picked up the pace offensively and took the lead on a four-yard touchdown pass from Watson to Mykah Riley, followed by Eric Guerrier’s extra point with 8:40 left in the first half.

OPRF started the second half moving deep into Lake Park territory. But the drive stalled, and Guerrier came on to kick a 32-yard field goal. The successful boot raised the Huskies’ lead to 10-6 at the 6:24 mark of the third quarter.

However, Lake Park responded with a 10-play, 94-yard march. George Tzamouranis connected with Chaz Orrico on a 50-yard touchdown reception that regained the lead for the Lancers. But the extra point was missed again, leaving the score 12-10 heading into the final quarter.

After the teams exchanged multiple defensive stops, OPRF took over on its 19 with 3:48 left. Six plays later, Watson (14-of-27, 203 yards, 2 TD, INT) hit Winkelhake (5 receptions, 117 yards) for a 69-yard touchdown. 

“Johnny was getting most of the reps during practice last week, and when Owen got thrown into the (Fenwick) game, he just hadn’t had many,” Hoerster said. “This week, Owen was able to get all the reps and understood the game plan, and he did a really nice job. It’s an amazing group of quarterbacks I love working with.”

The Huskies then opted to go for two, but Khalil Nichols was knocked out of bounds short of the goal line on a swing pass. Still, OPRF led 16-12 with 1:13 remaining.

On the ensuing kickoff however, Rodriguez fielded the ball near his goal line, veered right, and found an open lane to the house. His 99-yard return gave Lake Park the lead again, but the Lancers failed to convert the extra point for the third time, keeping the score 18-16 with :58 left.

“(Rodriguez’s) foot was very close to that goal line,” Hoerster said. “It’s a game of inches; we kick that ball two feet further, and it’s a touchback. Instead, one of their faster kids hits a seam, we slip in our lanes, and there he goes.”

OPRF got the ball back on its 35, and Watson completed passes of 12 yards to Nichols, 15 and 10 yards respectively to Winkelhake, and 8 yards to Mikee Vielehr. 

“Credit to our offense, we ran the two-minute drill perfectly,” Hoerster said. “We maybe could’ve gotten down a little closer to help (Guerrier) out, perhaps even scored a touchdown. But our kids never gave up.”

On 4th and 2 from the Lake Park 20 with :10 left, Guerrier came on for a potential game-winning field goal try from 37 yards out. But the Lancers got good pressure up the middle and slightly tipped the kick, causing it to veer left of the upright.

“We put ourselves in position to win, but they made a great play,” Hoerster said. “They got a good push up front.”

While losing the season’s first two games is not ideal, the Huskies know there’s plenty of time left to turn things around. Hoerster feels it’s more important than ever that his players stick together and not give up.

“We’re going through some growing pains,” he said. “We can’t take this loss away, but we’ve got to move on to next week. If the senior leadership steps up and the younger guys believe, I like the direction we’re headed.”

OPRF opens West Suburban Silver play at Proviso West Sept. 8 at 7:30 p.m.

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