ELMHURST – In 1920, York ushered in the inaugural season of the football program.
The Dukes, one of the oldest programs in the state, won five of their seven games in their first season.
One hundred and two years later, the 2022 York football team is looking to find perfection for the first time. The Dukes posted a 7-0-2 record in 1932 under legendary coach Clarence D. East.
The Dukes took a big step toward perfection Sept. 30.
In one of the biggest regular-season home games in program history – perhaps second only to 2006 – the Dukes gained another milestone by defeating state powerhouse Glenbard West for the second season in a row.
Senior quarterback Matt Vezza tossed a 43-yard touchdown pass to Charlie Specht midway through the fourth quarter to lead York to a 17-13 victory over Glenbard West in West Suburban Silver Conference play.
Before a capacity crowd estimated at 7,000 fans, the Dukes, ranked No. 4 in the Class 8A poll, stuck to a simple offensive game plan and played tough defense to knock off the vaunted Hilltoppers.
Glenbard West senior Aidan Murphy nearly saved the day, blocking a punt with 1:39 left in the game to help the Hilltoppers start their final drive at York’s 20-yard line. Glenbard West quarterback Korey Tai rolled to his right on the first play of the drive and tossed a pass into a horde of players that was intercepted by Matt Sutter to seal the victory for the Dukes.
With the win, the Dukes (7-0, 4-0) equaled their undefeated start from last season, when they also beat the Hilltoppers 12-10 in Week 6 in Glen Ellyn. The Dukes’ defense bailed them out in the end, finishing with two sacks and one gigantic game-saving interception.
“It was a great atmosphere tonight,” York coach Mike Fitzgerald said. “Our defense has always stood tall. … Our defense found a way to come through. I had a lot of confidence and faith on that last drive. It all worked out.”
After missing nearly all of the previous week because of an ankle injury, York senior running back Kelly Watson emphatically announced his return to the field. As an impressive drone show was attracting a lot of attention off to his left, Watson caused all eyes to stare at his own impressive show. The 6-foot 180-pounder broke loose for a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to give the Dukes a 10-7 lead with 4:06 left until halftime.
“We practice that kick all year,” Watson said. “Our special teams coach said we were so close to hitting that play all year. Today was the day. I caught the ball, looked down and the hole was wide open and I just trusted my speed and got out of there for a touchdown. I couldn’t be more proud of the blocking by the special teams.”
Watson, who had 25 yards rushing and caught two passes for 24 yards, played a big role in York’s game-winning drive. He had two key plays on third down to extend the final drive. He caught a 15-yard pass, then added a 3-yard run on third down to set up Specht’s touchdown with 6:16 remaining. Specht bobbled the ball from Vezza, only to snatch the ball and sprint the final seven yards for the score.
“I kept begging for the ball, and I liked how our coaches trusted me and Matt,” Watson said of the final drive. “This was easily one of the toughest run defenses we’ve played all year.”
Vezza struggled in the first half, but he completed his first four second-half passes to finish 11-of-16 passing for 150 yards and a touchdown along with an interception. Vezza ran for 45 yards on 13 carries, but he said the game-winning TD wiped away all the mistakes.
“That [touchdown] felt great,” Vezza said. “I made a good throw to Specht and he ran a great route and made a great catch and finished the play. It was great blocking by the offensive line on that route.”
Late in the second quarter, the Hilltoppers (5-1, 2-1) quickly answered Watson’s touchdown by marching down the field for a tying field goal to put the two teams right where they started the game — tied. The two teams were stuck in a feeling-out process in the first quarter but the second quarter yielded all the first-half scoring, with 20 points scored in the final nine minutes. Tai, who passed for 74 yards and ran for 18, spurted loose for a 5-yard TD run to set up Watson’s touchdown.
Glenbard West, which came into the game averaging 41.8 points a game, scored just one touchdown and tacked on two field goals. Running back Julius Ellens supplied most of the offense for the Hilltoppers with 22 attempts for 88 yards.
The Hilltoppers entered the game ranked No. 3 in the Class 8A poll, but managed to hold York’s big-play offense in check all game, except for the late TD. Murphy nearly saved the day for the Hilltoppers with a blocked punt, Glenbard West coach Chad Hetlet said.
“The kickoff return was the biggest play of the game,” Hetlet said. “Matt Vezza played with no fear [last year] against us. He did again tonight. He makes the plays he has to make. … Our inability to move the ball [hurt us], but that blocked punt was big. He’s been doing it all year in practice, just incredible. He does it, but we don’t cash in on it. All the credit to York.”