NEW LENOX – Two beefy lines helped the Kaneland football team gain notoriety beyond its vaunted spread attack this season.
On Saturday, nine sacks and 320 yards of offense helped Lincoln-Way West cut the Knights down to size.
The Class 5A second-round playoff game between the Warriors and Knights hinged largely on lineplay, where Lincoln-Way West established leverage early and held it throughout a 31-15 upset of the bracket’s top seed.
Not unlike Downers Grove North after a 7A first-round upset of No. 1 Batavia last month, Lincoln-Way West credited its own conference of large-enrollment schools – the South Suburban Red – for helping players keep their poise against the Knights.
“All year long, we’ve seen kids that are 300 pounds, 280, 270,” Warriors left guard Derek Gurnea said. “We’ve seen that before, so it was basically just fundamentals. Stay low, have a wide base, just normal O-line stuff. And it’s just attitude, and that’s what helped us.”
Spurred by its dominance in the trenches, Kaneland outscored opponents, 378-125, during its third straight unbeaten regular season en route to a third successive Northern Illinois Big 12 East title.
One fall removed from edging Belvidere, 51-45, in their playoff opener, the Knights eased past the Bucs, 48-0, in this season’s rematch last week. The Warriors handled Rochelle in their first-round game, following Kaneland’s path during conference play.
Lincoln-Way West also had lost to Sycamore, who the Knights defeated without junior quarterback Drew David in Week 8. David was held out as a precaution after suffering what Knights coach Tom Fedderly on Saturday revealed was a broken thumb on his right, throwing hand.
After watching David complete his first two passes of the afternoon, the Warriors swarmed him consistently. The strategy of a front four whose biggest player is 6-foot-1, 220 pounds wasn’t out of the ordinary.
“Everyone we come across is bigger than us. I’ve never gone across from someone that I’ve been bigger than. Not once,” Warriors defensive tackle Matt Soraghan said. “Speed and low pad level and having a wide base, you’ll kill anybody.”
Kaneland was in danger of suffering its first shutout loss since Week 3 of the 2001 season until the final 2:06, when the Knights scored touchdowns on a Tyler Carlson pass to Zack Martinelli and a short Carlson keeper run.
Around the same time, Lincoln-Way West’s student section taunted its Kaneland counterparts with a “Where is Kaneland?” chant. After one boisterous Knights fan shouted the correct yet smart-alecky answer, Maple Park, the collective shot back with “Ty Isaac!”
It was a nod to the explosive, Southern California-bound Joliet Catholic running back Lincoln-Way West will see in this week’s quarterfinals, its first trip to that round in the school’s four seasons. The same Isaac the Knights were hoping to defend at Peterson Field before the Warriors unveiled other plans.
“We didn’t underestimate them,” Martinelli said. “We knew we had to come in here and fight, but you never want it to end. You just want to keep going, you want to keep playing, you want to get to Champaign [for the state championship]. That’s our goal. I mean, we got our conference champs, that was one goal. We just came up short.”
Kaneland will enter its 2013 opener with 28 consecutive regular-season wins and victories in 34 of its past 37 games. The program advanced to the state semifinals in 2010 and 2011.
The Knights won 31 straight games – playoffs included – from 1997 through Week 3 of 1999, capturing a pair of 3A state titles in that span.
While downstate Pittsfield’s run of 64 successive victories from 1966-73 remains the benchmark, Kaneland’s recent stretch is among the best since 2000 if postseason losses are excluded.
“We were brothers this year, and we came and we fought, week in and week out,” Martinelli said. “Our coaching staff loved us. We loved them. I’m never going to forget this, because my players and the coaches around us were unbelievable.”
Pause for a moment, and those words seem easily transferable to a triumphant Saturday after Thanksgiving in Champaign.
Instead, they were delivered on a different artificial turf field with much less history.