Zack Crawford’s ‘spider-monkey sack,’ two touchdowns power Sycamore past Sterling, into 5A semis

Sycamore's Zack Crawford (middle) celebrates with teammates after he scored a touchdown during their Class 5A state playoff game against Sterling Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022, at Sycamore High School.

SYCAMORE – Zach Crawford went flying through the air on the last play of the first half, hoping Sterling quarterback J.P. Schilling would throw the ball.

Instead, Schilling tucked the ball and Crawford landed on top of him for a sack on a play he said his friends dubbed “the spider monkey” – one of two sacks the Sycamore senior had Saturday to go with two rushing touchdowns in the Spartans’ 28-0 win over the Golden Warriors in a Class 5A quarterfinal.

Sycamore's Zack Crawford leaps at Sterling's JP Schilling during their Class 5A state playoff game Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022, at Sycamore High School.

“I was kind of hoping he would throw it so I could get my interception,” Crawford said. “I was in the air, realized he was not going to throw it, so I was like, ‘Well looks like I’m coming down on top of him.’ Friends called it the spider monkey sack. So that’s what we’re going with.”

The win sends the Spartans (12-0) into the semifinals for a second straight year. Last year, the team lost to eventual state champ Fenwick. This time they’ll face Nazareth Academy (8-4) in Sycamore for a trip to the state championship game.

Crawford said it’s a matter of unfinished business this time around.

“Last year we didn’t finish semifinals the way we wanted to,” Crawford said. “This is about earning our respect. This is about finishing off what we couldn’t last year.”

Sterling's Kael Ryan fends off Sycamore's Joey Puleo during their Class 5A state playoff game Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022, at Sycamore High School.

Down 14-0 at halftime, Sterling (9-3) started the second half with the ball. The Golden Warriors rotated quarterbacks Schilling and Kael Ryan all year, but on that drive both were on the field. Schilling found Ryan on a screen that Ryan turned into a 20-yard gain, and then a personal foul on Sycamore at the end added 15 yards into the Sycamore red zone.

The Golden Warriors reached the 10, but a bad snap backed them up 14, then on fourth-and-long, Burke Gautcher intercepted Ryan, ending the best Sterling scoring chance of the day.

“It’s something we’ve done the last couple weeks and something we always knew we had,” Sterling coach Jon Schlemmer said of playing both quarterbacks at the same time. “They both start on defense. They are two of the better players we’ve ever had in this program. So we knew we’d have to get them on the field at the same time later on. But credit to Sycamore, they had an answer for everything we wanted to do today.”

Sycamore ran almost 6 minutes off the next drive. With all the big plays Crawford had in the game, Sycamore coach Joe Ryan said none was bigger than an 18-yard run on fourth-and-1 from the 19 on that drive, getting the first down and keeping the drive alive for a Tyler Curtis touchdown run on the next play for a 21-0 lead.

The Sterling offense couldn’t get anything else going until the last drive of the game in the final 2:44, and they were down 28-0 at that point thanks to a 6-yard run by Crawford with 9:44 left in the fourth.

The final Sterling drive started at its own 5 and reached the Sycamore 20, but Curtis came up with an interception to preserve the shutout, the second in a row for the Spartans, fourth in the last five games (all against playoff teams), and sixth of the year.

“Shutouts are unbelievable. Their offense has been scoring a lot of points,” Joe Ryan said. “To hold those guys and hold those quarterbacks that run so well, our kids just tackled well and played well. And that’s what you’ve got to do this time of year.

Sterling's Justin Null looks to get by Sycamore's Carter York during their Class 5A state playoff game Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022, at Sycamore High School.

Sycamore scored on its first drive, turning some early big runs from Joey Puleo into a 5-yard touchdown run by Crawford.

From there the defense took over. Sterling’s best chance to score came when Sycamore fumbled a snap and took over on the Spartans’ 29-yard line. Facing a fourth-and-3, Kael Ryan took off and had a path to the first down, but Kiefer Taronki took him down a yard short of the marker.

“All year long we’ve been playing fast and physical,” Crawford said. “That’s what our coaches teach us to do. Our defensive line is exploding off low. Our linebackers are scraping well. Our safeties are coming down and filling in when they need to, dropping when they need to. All around if you just play fast and physical like we did today, we’ll get the job done.”

It wasn’t until the half was winding down the Spartans added a score. The Spartans were looking at a third-and-goal from the 8, Meier ran up the middle untouched for a score and a 14-0 lead.

The Spartans had 297 yards of total offense, including 262 on the ground. Puleo had 79 yards, Curtis had 75, and Crawford had 73.

The two Sterling quarterbacks were a combined 12 for 22 for 101 yards and three interceptions, including one by Dawson Alexander. Sterling managed just 64 rushing yards in the game on 35 carries. Kael Ryan led the Golden Warriors with 38 yards on 14 carries, and was 7 for 15 passing for 56 yards and the three picks.

For the Golden Warriors, their season comes to end with losses only to St. Francis (still alive in the Class 4A semifinals), Moline (reached the second round of the 7A playoffs) and the Spartans.

“It was a good year,” Schlemmer said. “We lost to three really good teams. We’ve got to find a way to beat those really good times. We’ve got to get better, myself included. It was never for lack of effort with our kids. Our kids played their tails off.”