DeKALB – Lockport failed to crack the win column during an 0-9 season in 2018, the year before coach George Czart took over the Porters football program.
Three seasons later, the Porters are celebrating a state championship.
Senior running back Ty Schultz ran for 231 yards and the Porters rode an impressive defensive effort to preserve their 24-6 victory in the Class 8A Championship game Saturday at Northern Illinois University’s Huskie Stadium.
“[That was our] freshman year,” a bevy of Porters players said postgame.
What fed into the drastic turnaround in three seasons?
“Guys like this,” Czart said, looking around at the host of seniors that included Schultz, wideout/defensive back Danny Martisek, linebacker Dylan Schmutzler, quarterback Hayden Timosciek and others. “There’s no doubt about it.”
“I can pretend I’m the big wig here, but you can’t win without the horses,” Czart said. “These guys are the horses. There’s no doubt about it.
“All I can do is try to contain them; feed them a little bit here and there ... there’s just not a lot I can do to up their game. They already want it. All I kind of do is give them a schedule and then we get after it. The rest of it is their talent, their desire and their want-to.”
The Porters previously won state titles in 2002 and 2003; Maine South won its last state title in 2016. Lockport and Maine South met in the 2003 Class 8A final.
With less than five minutes remaining in regulation, Porters senior linebacker Ethan Gallagher intercepted Hawks’ quarterback Rowan Keefe to stop their drive in Porters’ territory.
Schultz, and a 21-yard touchdown by Andrew LoPresti with 2:50 left, ultimately iced the game for the Porters.
Lockport (13-1) took a 7-0 lead into halftime of a stout defensive battle. The Porters’ lone score came from Schultz’s 11-yard touchdown with 1:43 remaining in the first quarter.
“In the past game, the D-line getting pressure ... I saw on film [Keefe] was running; he always ran. The ball was kind of loose. Every time I made a tackle, I was trying to rip it out. I [eventually] got one,” said Martisek, who had seven tackles, two interceptions and a forced fumble.
To open the second half, Maine South blocked a punt, but Keefe (24 for 41, 201 yards) was then promptly intercepted by Martisek. It set up a 26-yard field goal by Gabriel Czako for the 10-0 lead with 5:29 remaining in the third quarter.
The ensuing possession, Maine South (12-2) faced a third-and-11 on the Lockport 38. Keefe was sacked by Gallagher and fumbled, but Mike Sajenko (15 carries, 76 yards, nine receptions, 50 yards) recovered it and advanced to a first down to the 13. Keefe later found the end zone on a 1-yard run, but the extra point failed to preserve Lockport’s 10-6 lead with 2:13 left in the third quarter.
With 11 seconds left in the third quarter and Maine South driving, Sajenko fumbled, and it was recovered by Porters’ junior Troy Mutz. Lockport drove down to the Hawks’ 10 as the third quarter drew to a close with the Porters leading by four. Schultz added a 3-yard score with 11:16 remaining to build the lead to 10.
“That’s kind of our M.O.,” Czart said about the potential momentum shift with the fumble. “I can go through pretty much every game and pick a point ... a point where we were on the ropes and these guys stepped up defensively, and stepped up and made the play. Danny [had a] pair of interceptions. Andrew [Blackburn-Forst] makes tackles in the backfield. (Schmutzler) is all over the field making tackles ... we did a great job of answering the bell.”
Maine South was led by Cole Cichowski’s 12 total tackles and two defensive pass breakups, but the Hawks were outpaced, 400-273, in total offense. The Hawks also had two lost fumbles and were intercepted three times.
“The run that these guys have had and the courage and heart that they’ve given us, one of 10 Maine South teams to be in the state championship. That’s not easy to get here,” Maine South coach David Inserra said. “They did a phenomenal job all season just to get here. For about three quarters, we played pretty well.”