NAPERVILLE — Years from now you will hard pressed to convince the Naperville Central football players and their fans that Friday night’s thrilling 31-30 victory over Maine South was not a state title game.
Because of a pandemic and a spring-shortened season, there were no state playoffs and no championship game to be played. But when the 5-0 Hawks came to Naperville on short notice to give these two elite programs an opportunity to close out the season with a playoff-caliber showdown, the game did not disappoint.
Maine South took a 24-14 lead in the first half and pushed around a Redhawks defense that has been stingy all spring. Junior quarterback Rowan Keefe would finish the night with 353 yards and a pair of touchdown passes, but even that was not enough when Naperville Central linebacker Shane Roth blocked a potential game-tying extra point with 1:13 left to play, allowing the hosts to run out the clock and hang on for a one-point, come-from-behind win.
“We knew they were ranked near the top in the state and we wanted to knock them off,” said Roth, who also played a big role in a pair of fumble recoveries for the Redhawks defense, which came up big in the second half and allowed the team to rally for a 31-24 lead late in the fourth quarter. “We wanted to finish 6-0 and this was like state title game to us.”
Naperville Central did win all six of its contests on the field this spring, but technically finish the year 5-1 after having to forfeit a win over Waubonsie Valley over an issue of player eligibility.
But that technicality could not put a damper on the big win and send off for retiring coach Mike Stine.
“That was special,” said Stine, who has taught at the school since 1984, replaced Joe Bunge as the program’s head coach in 2006 and won a state title in 2013. “We started the journey for this 15 months ago and I’m extremely proud of our guys. That was a great football game between two elite teams and either one of us could have won.”
The Hawks had a 74-yard touchdown run from Joey Dellumo and both a scoring pass and run from Keefe while building a 10-point lead at the half. But Naperville Central had a big interception from Ryan Wojcik in the second half and also recovered a botched punt return to help battle back.
With Niko Gordon and Jaden McGill each running hard and scoring touchdowns in the second half, Naperville Central moved ahead 31-24 with 3:46 left to play only to have Keefe march down the field and eventually connect with Mike Sajenko on a highlight-reel 18-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-17. Sajenko made a leaping grab between two Redhawks defenders to make it a 31-30 game before Roth and the Redhawks countered with one more big play.
“That drive was pretty electric and I knew by boy Mike would make an amazing play on the ball,” Keefe said. “It just stinks that we couldn’t win this one for the seniors.”