WILMINGTON — Coming into the IHSA Class 2A state semifinal matchup against Tri-Valley with a chance to head to the state championship for the first time since 2014, Wilmington head coach Jeff Reents said he knew his team needed to be able to run the ball effectively and keep the Vikings’ high-powered offense, which scored 34 points or better in each of its first three playoff games, off the field.

With the help of their home crowd, the Wildcats managed to execute their game plan to near perfection, as they ran for 324 yards and owned the time of possession for nearly 31 of the 48 minutes in their 42-14 throttling of Tri-Valley on Saturday night at Jeff Reents Stadium.

“We were able to run the ball effectively and played good defense,” Reents said. “I think that was huge for us, especially in the beginning.

“Our defense had them in second- and third-and-long situations, and that helped us out. And we were able to keep their offense off the field with our offense sustaining long drives.”

The Wildcats wasted little time taking control early, as their defense forced a safety on the game’s opening drive after a quick three-and-out by the Vikings that ended in their punt attempt flying past the back end zone.

Knowing it needed to capitalize on the free two points created from its defense, Wilmington’s offense then took the pigskin right down the field, capping off a 60-yard, six-play drive with a 43-yard touchdown run by running back Jacob Friddle.

Up 8-0 after a missed extra-point, the home team quickly forced two more three-and-outs by Tri-Valley’s offense after a punt of their own. Starting on its own 40-yard line on its third drive on offense, Wilmington once again drove it right down the Vikings’ throats when Colin James notched a 47-yard touchdown run on the fourth play of the drive to help put Wilmington up 15-0 right before the first quarter ended.

“We got momentum right away, and we were able to keep it,” Reents said.

Riding high off the hot start, Wilmington continued to pour it on in the second quarter, when James notched his second score of the night off a 10-yard rush on the Wildcats’ opening possession of the second quarter.

“After my second score, I felt like we definitely had them on the ropes,” James said. “The momentum was clearly on our side, and when that happens, there’s not much that the other team can do.”

After the safety and three straight punts by the Vikings in their first four offensive possessions, the Wildcats’ defense finally made a much needed gut-punch when linebacker Karsen Hansen intercepted Tri-Valley quarterback Andrew Petrilli on a screen pass attempt for a 41-yard pick-six that helped give his squad a commanding 29-0 lead with a little more than four minutes left before halftime.

“I heard a screen call by my teammates, and Friddle came up and was in the mess at the line of scrimmage, and luckily I was just ready for the ball,” Hansen said.

With less than 20 yards of total offense, Tri-Valley finally found a groove when Petrilli connected on a 25-yard touchdown pass to Grant Fatima to cut Wilmington’s lead to 29-7 with 3:13 left before halftime.

Holding onto the 21-point lead at the break, Reents said he wanted his squad to focus on moving the chains and keeping the ball away from Petrilli and his offense during the second half.

That plan worked to perfection as the Wildcats opened up the second half with a near six-minute drive to begin the third quarter. Starting on its own 22-yard line, Wilmington converted on two third downs to wrap up a 10-play, 78-yard touchdown drive with a 1-yard score by Friddle to help put the home team back up by 29 points.

With its defense getting a long break, thanks to the lengthy drive by its offense, Wilmington’s defense then forced the Vikings’ fourth punt of the night on another three-and-out, which resulted in the Wildcats taking another five-minute drive that allowed them to control about 11 minutes of time of possession in the third quarter before punting at the start of the final quarter.

“We wanted to control the time of possession in the second half and not have any three-and-outs,” Reents said. “We had a great first drive to start the third, and we kept the Vikings’ offense off the field.”

The fourth quarter followed similarly to the first three quarters, as Wilmington added another score off a 1-yard scamper by Hansen to go up 42-7 before Tri-Valley added a late score off a 28-yard touchdown pass to Noah Streenz with just less than five minutes left in the game.

As a result of the 35-point win, Wilmington notched its sixth straight 40-point outing, including four straight to begin the playoffs to give them the most in a single playoff run in program history.

“It’s been a great run, and I think that shows that our kids have improved all year long,” Reents said. “We are playing our best football right now. We took off at the start of the playoffs, and I think we stepped up our level of play each game, and we needed that tonight against a strong Tri-Valley team.”

STAT BOOK

James’ 155 rushing yards and two scores off 17 attempts led Wilmington. Friddle added 117 yards and two rushing touchdowns on 20 carries. Hansen chipped in a pick-six and 41 rushing yards with a touchdown off nine touches.

UP NEXT

Wilmington (13-0) will advance to the IHSA Class 2A championship against Nashville (12-1) at 1 p.m. Friday at Huskie Field in DeKalb.

Cody is a sports journalist who's been with the Daily Journal since 2020. He's been a sports reporter since his days at the University of Iowa where he graduated in 2019.