GILMAN — For the past 15 football seasons Iroquois West’s postseason hopes had just been wishful thinking with no results to back it up, but on Friday night against Central, those hopes finally became a reality again.
That’s because the Raiders secured a gutsy 13-6 victory over the Comets on their Homecoming night to notch their pivotal fifth win of the season, which makes them playoff-bound for the first time since its last winning season in 2006.
“For the first time since 2006 we are able to say that we are playoff eligible,” said Raiders coach Jason Thiele. “And to do it against Central, one of our rivals, on Homecoming, it’s great and the guys are super pumped up.”
With the playoffs in the back of its mind Iroquois West knew it would need to begin executing down the stretch of games late in order to better prepare for a possible postseason run. And luckily for the Raiders, that all started in the second half after the Raiders had trailed 6-0 going into halftime.
The Comets lone score was capped off a 97-yard drive that ended in a 14-yard touchdown reception to wide receiver Tristan Schmidt from quarterback Luke Shoven on a 4th-and-12 conversion attempt with under a minute left in the first half after they failed to convert their two-point conversion attempt.
“We were down 6-0 at halftime, but our mentality was just like it was when we came back against Seneca,” Raider quarterback Sam McMillan said. “We knew we could come back and win the game.”
Iroquois West opened up the second half with two-straight touchdowns in its first two offensive possessions. The first one came just three plays in the third quarter, when Trystyn Schacht secured his first of two touchdowns on the evening off a 9-yard power run that put the Raiders up 7-6 with 11:02 remaining in the third. Iroquois West’s defensive back Damian Alwarado quickly picked off Shoven a few players later on Central’s ensuing possession, which helped set up the Raiders in prime field position starting on their own 43-yard line.
The running back trio of Auston Miller, John Ahlden and Schacht then rotated in and out of the backfield powering their way into Comet territory before Schacht notched his second-straight score off a 9-yard run to put the home team up 13-6 with just under three minutes remaining in the third quarter after the PAT was blocked.
The 13-straight unanswered points by the Raiders came off a key first half adjustment in how they wanted to run the ball in the slick, muddy conditions.
“After the first half we came to a conclusion that cutting wasn’t an option in this wet mud,” Schacht said. “So we just had to push forward and run uphill, which resulted in some touchdowns in the second half.”
Those two rushing touchdowns by Schacht completely flipped the momentum toward the home team after having been shutout for the entire first half.
“In the first half I think our defense played exceptional, and I guess at halftime they felt like they didn’t need to do anymore,” said Comet coach Brian Spooner. “The turning point was when Iroquois West came out and scored to begin the second half. All the momentum we created from the first half vanished in one drive, and then they scored on their second straight drive and that was pretty much the game.”
Up one possession heading into the final quarter the Raiders knew they just had to focus on burning clock by picking up first downs. And no first down was more important than the one its quarterback McMillan picked up on a sneak attempt on a 3rd and 1 with 1:22 remaining in the final quarter. The first down pickup by the quarterback under center helped force Central to use all of its timeouts before Ahlden picked up the last first down needed to set up the victory formation.
“We had our offensive line make a great push, and so it felt good to be able to pick up that key first down,” McMillan said. “It’s the best feeling knowing we are now playoff eligible.”
Schacht led the Raiders’ ground-and-pound game with 136 yards and two scores off a team-high 22 carries. Ahlden added 56 rushing yards on 11 carries. Clayton Leonard and Aiden Tilstra both led the defense with one sack each.
Shoven completed 11-of-25 pass attempts for 82 yards to go along with a touchdown and an interception to lead Central. Jayce Meier totaled nine carries for a team-high 61 rushing yards.
Iroquois West (5-2) remains home for another Vermillion Valley North Conference matchup against Dwight at 7 p.m. on Friday.
Central (5-2) will travel to Seneca for another VVC matchup of its own on the same day and time.