FRANKFORT – Football teams normally don’t practice their passing games in weather conditions such as Saturday, with the frigid wind whipping out of the west and snow squalls hitting at inopportune times.
Instead, they practice the running game with big blockers pushing the other team aside for 3 or 4 yards at a time.
So how did Lincoln-Way East beat Glenbard West 31-7 in Saturday’s Class 8A semifinal? With a pair of touchdown passes, a pair of interceptions in the end zone and a 99-yard quarterback sneak – one unlike any seen in these parts for generations.
The 24-point margin, which advances the top-seeded Griffins (13-0) to next Saturday’s championship game against Loyola Academy (12-1), was hard-fought and well-deserved.
Braden Tischer, a junior who weighs 165 pounds and looks likely to blow away in the harsh crosswind that created a 14-degree wind chill, threw two touchdown passes, both caught by Jimmy Curtin. One was a 19-yard reception to give the Griffins a 17-7 lead with 6:35 left in the third quarter; the second a 57-yard score, with Curtin catching the ball at the Hilltoppers’ 35 and racing to the end zone for a 24-7 advantage.
“Jimmy always finds a way to get open,” Tischer said. “The first one, he got behind the linebackers on a slant, and the other, he just beat his guy and did a great job hauling it in.”
The interceptions were as important, each one authored by Stephon Gist-Gardner Jr. He stole a ball from Ju Ju Ellens in the end zone to set up the short field, which ended in Curtin’s first touchdown reception. He then grabbed another errant Korey Tai pass near the Griffins’ goal line with 26.2 seconds left.
The first pick was the critical one, preventing Glenbard West from cutting the East lead to three points. The second earned him countless slaps on the back from the happy home crowd on his way to the locker room.
“I was a receiver last year,” Gist-Gardner said. “The ball’s in the air, I just went up and made a play.”
He cut in front of Ellens in the left corner of the north end zone and made the pick as both hit the frozen turf.
“I was slipping and sliding,” Gist-Gardner said. “It’s harder for me because I’ve got my back to him. But this feels pretty good. You just play your game. Don’t think about the weather.
“We made it work.”
Gist-Gardner was the bellcow of a defense that held the Hilltoppers, one of the state’s premiere programs, to 252 total yards (136 rushing) and Tai to a 13-of-24 passing for 116 yards. Glenbard West’s only score was a 4-yard pass from Tai to Filip Maciorowski early in the second quarter for a 7-0 lead.
The Griffins answered on James Kwiecinski’s 3-yard run around the left end to cap a 10-play drive with 2:21 left in the half, then took the lead on Carter Nair’s 43-yard field goal with 1:10 left in the half after Glenbard’s Kolin Kennebeck coughed up the kickoff.
“There was a lot of perseverance in that first half,” East coach Rob Zvonar said. “It’s a different environment, but to be up 10-7 at the half – what was so great to see was how the offense answered back. And what a great kick, to get a 43-yard field goal in this weather. That’s big. Then we settled down in the second half.”
And the 99-yard sneak? Really, it was more like 99 and a half, to quote Don Meredith.
Tischer, having watched the Buffalo Bills game last week, knew that taking firm hold of the snap was key as he stood in the end zone. He did, lunged forward and kept pushing as the offensive line did its work.
“We just kept pushing, it opened up, and Josh Janowski pancaked his guy off the ball,” Tischer said. “And I just broke free. It was a pretty sick play.”
He felt the last Hilltopper nip at his heels at the East 35, then took off on a jaunt that took 18 seconds end-to-end for the final Griffins’ score.
The fourth-and-goal tackle that gave East the ball behind their 1-yard line? By Gist-Gardner, of course.
“Our defensive was scrappy today,” Zvonar said. “We watched Glenbard West score 37 points on Maine South last week. We bent a little bit but didn’t break.”
The last word belonged to Gist-Gardner: “All I can say is, we’re going to Champaign.”