While such a start put the Panthers into an early hole, they quickly climbed out of it and never slowed down until they had the game in hand, keeping their postseason hopes alive with a 45-22 victory in Southwest Prairie West action.
“We prepped all week and we were locked in,” said Panthers tight end Deakon Tonielli, who caught a pair of touchdown passes. “I think a big thing is we had [alum] Jack Hugunin before the game as a speaker for us, and when he talked it really kind of hit the guys that know this is their last year and are worrying about not having football. They turned that thing around and came out and performed.”
Quarterback Cruz Ibarra certainly was performing, complementing his touchdown passes to Tonielli with a couple more to Jordan Katzenbach.
“That was so awesome to see,” Katzenbach said. “We have so many guys that can do so many things. We know we only had three games left guaranteed and have to win the rest of them, so we just went all out.”
West Aurora (1-6, 0-3) took advantage of the early turnover to take a 7-0 lead on Gino Martino’s 4-yard touchdown pass to Terrence Smith barely a minute into the action.
Oswego (3-4, 1-2) answered right back, using a 53-yard run from Braedon Hellinger to help set up Ibarra’s 8-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Katzenbach.
The Panthers would score on all five of their possessions in the first half, settling for a field goal during a missed opportunity just before the half as the Blackhawks surrendered as many points in the first half as they had in the past two weeks.
“I thought they executed really well tonight and looked like a team that came out and played with their backs against the wall,” West Aurora coach Nate Eimer said. “They looked like a program that has a winning tradition and we kind of struggled at times tonight. I think we lost the battle up front for most of the game. It just wasn’t our night, and I’ve been very proud with how we played the last two weeks and tonight wasn’t good and that’s on me.”
The Blackhawks only had one first down in the first half, but were able to get on the scoreboard a second time thanks to another Oswego turnover that put them inside the Panthers 10-yard line. Smith later outleaped a defender to haul in his second 4-yard touchdown to tie the game at 14-14.
Any hopes West Aurora had for a second half rally seemingly were thwarted when Hellinger blocked a punt early in the third quarter. He recovered it on the West Aurora 5-yard line, where Noah Vera then ran it in for a touchdown and 38-14 advantage.
“Coaches told us we need to get a blocked punt because we’ve been so close so many times,” Hellinger said. “I was close to getting one against Minooka and we’ve been close with multiple people on our defense. This time, I saw a wide-open gap so I ran and was able to block it.”
Hellinger had quite an eventful day as he also had a 4-yard touchdown run – and he did it against the school where his dad teaches.
“It was fun playing against them,” he said. “We knew we had to win. It’s my senior year and I don’t want it to end with nine games.”
Cruz connected with Katzenbach for touchdowns of 8 and 13 yards and with Tonielli for 30 and 19 yards.
“We came out and wanted to pass the ball a little more and explore our options a little bit and I think we did that perfectly,” Tonielli said. “That’s the thing with me and Cruz [Ibarra]. We have that connection where we can go out there and play backyard football and connect.”
Payton Furtstenau and Brady Hayslett had interceptions forOswego.
Eric McNeil Jr. scored on a 5-yard run with 1:21 left in the game for the Blackhawks who dropped their fifth straight.