COAL CITY — There was a familiar feeling in the air ahead of Coal City’s home matchup with St. Francis in the IHSA Class 4A quarterfinals Saturday afternoon.
Much like the week leading up to this point in last year’s postseason, freezing weather and snow early in the week gave way to chilly-but-bearable temperatures and sunshine in Coal City paired with a smell equal parts optimism and pork chop sandwiches.
The only thing different this quarterfinal Saturday than last year in Coal City was the result. Matched up against a team with one of the state’s most impressive resumes and explosive offenses in the Spartans, the Coalers gave up an early score before turning dominant on both sides of the ball in a 25-7 win and a spot in the IHSA Class 4A semifinals.
The win came at the same location and same round that the Coalers bowed out against Richmond-Burton last season, the same Richmond-Burton team Coal City will host in next weekend’s semis.
“It means everything, it’s hard not to get emotional about it,” senior defensive end Brady Crawford said. “Last year in this round, we lost on our home field. We grinded all summer and I couldn’t be more proud of my teammates, but we’re not done.”
Coalers coach Dan Hutchings said the team’s work for this season has been exactly a year in the making after last year’s 17-14 loss to the Rockets, a team with a little extra personal meaning with his son, Payton Hutchings, serving as the team’s quarterback and free safety.
“They talked about how they wanted to go further than we did and they can check that box,” Dan Hutchings said. “I know what the ultimate goal is. They’re a great group and they mean a lot to me — heck, my son’s out there.”
Like last season, the Coalers fell in an early 7-0 hole, but even with the quick deficit, the Coalers didn’t have much reason to be phased. After a 60-yard busted screen play set the Spartans up deep in Coaler territory, Coal City forced a pair of incompletions and a zero-yard rush before Spartans quarterback Tommy Rittenhouse found Ben Bettag for a 17-yard score on fourth-and-10.
But the Coalers couldn’t have responded much quicker. After a 21-yard run by Daniel Jezik on their first play from scrimmage, sophomore Ashton Harvey took a handoff after a fake screen pass to Jezik and busted loose for a 39-yard score to make it a 7-6 game.
Harvey said that the Coalers knew St. Francis’ defense would key on Jezik and the 2,005 yards he had coming into the game, which allowed him to make the big early play.
“That’s how we planned that — we knew they would focus on Daniel and key in on him,” Harvey said. “I haven’t ran the ball much this year and we knew they could sneak me in there to get a big run out of the gate.”
After the two teams traded a plethora of punts with a Payton Hutchings interception sprinkled in, the Coalers took their first lead of the game when Jezik ran in a score from nine yards out to put the home team ahead 13-7 with just under a minute left in the half.
The Spartans tried to get back even on the ensuing drive, but sophomore safety Abram Wills picked Rittenhouse off to send the Coalers to the half with the six-point lead.
And Wills’ interception was a sign of things to come. Harvey added a pair of picks in the second half, including one in the third quarter that set up Jezik’s second touchdown of the game.
Jezik added his third score of the game when he found the endzone untouched from 19 yards out to put the game away at 25-7 with two minutes remaining.
The Oklahoma State wrestling commit was flagged for a taunting penalty at the end of the run, but Jezik said he contemplated kneeling at the one-yard line to run out the clock before changing his mind, which resulted in what looked like a taunt.
“I was going to stop and kneel at the one, but I turned around and saw six guys there and knew I was going to get smoked so I had to speed up and get back in there,” Jezik said. “It looked that way, but that wasn’t the intention. They’re a great team that played a great game and I didn’t mean any disrespect.”
For good measure, senior linebacker Austin Pullara added a fourth and final interception on the Spartans’ last drive of the game. Between Rittenhouse and Michael Baffa, who replaced Rittenhouse in the second half, the Coalers held St. Francis’ powerful passing attack to a 16-for-51 night for 210 yards, a touchdown and four picks.
Crawford, who faced constant double teams all game long, joined Nick Seplak, Brady Best and Kyle Burch to form a defensive line that twisted and stunted all game long to confuse the Spartans’ offensive line.
“If you look at their line, they’re big and strong but have a lot of underclassmen,” Crawford said. “One of our goals was to move around and get them in different checks. That really flustered them and opened up a better pass rush.”
As for the secondary, it was a pair of underclassmen in Harvey and Wills that led the way. Dan Hutchings said the duo’s inexperience showed earlier in the season, but they both stepped up when it counted.
“Those kids were wet behind the ears weeks one and two against Morris and (Bishop) Mac and got exploited a bit, but Abram did a great job today and played some great pass defense,” Dan Hutchings said. “And Harvey, all I can say is that kid’s all over the field. He’s hard-nosed, has that wrestling mentality, is all over and he loves to hit you.”
And by the time the smoke settled, it was Jezik who once again led the way for the Coaler offense. He toted the rock 38 times for 191 yards and his trio of scores. But it’s the blockers up front that deserve the credit in Jezik’s eyes.
“It really came down to who worked the hardest in practice, who was the most condition,” Jezik said. “Down in the trenches … our offensive line did a great job the whole game making holes. It was a great effort on both sides but we came out on top.”
The Coalers ran for 269 yards as a team, with Harvey adding 51 to Jezik’s game-high 191 yards. Payton Hutchings went 4-for-9 for 68 yards and an interception. Kade McKinney had a 25-yard catch, Asa Copper caught a ball for 23 yards and Jezik had the other two catches and 20 yards in the Coalers’ passing attack.
Harvey and Pullara had six total tackles apiece, while Burch added five of his own.
The Coalers will host Richmond-Burton next weekend at a time to be determined, with the winner earning a spot in the IHSA Class 4A state championship in Dekalb on November 29.
“It’s definitely a good feeling to get further than last year, but we want to keep going,” Jezik said. “We want to be in that November 29 game on Friday. We’ll celebrate tonight, put it behind us and get back to work Monday.”