WILMINGTON — Jeff Reents and his Wilmington Wildcats football team couldn't have been paired up with much more of a familiar opponent for the first round of the IHSA Class 3A playoffs than Lisle, an Illinois Central Eight Conference rival that the 'Cats topped 27-6 during the regular season.
Between reflection upon the regular season meeting, the Lions' 5-4 record compared to the Wildcats' 8-1 mark, as well as the fact the Lions were without a pair of pivotal running backs and linebackers in Mike Walker and Ben Weber, it seemed as if the Wildcats wouldn't have a difficult matchup on Becker Field at Jeff Reents Stadium in Wilmington.
But the Lions showed resolve and resillience and hung tough with the Wildcats before Wilmington was eventually able to separate itself for a 24-12 win to keep the playoff dreams alive for at least another week.
"First and foremost, what we need to do is give credit to (Lisle) coach (Paul) Parpet and Lisle and their staff, what a great job," Wilmington coach Jeff Reents said. "They were down a few kids, they could have come in here and laid down at 5-4, but they came in here fighting us left and right."
As is tradition in Wilmington, the Wildcats took the opening kickoff and executed a vintage Wildcats drive, as they took off over seven minutes of game clock and methodically drove 76 yards on 11 plays to take an early 7-0 lead on the first of three rushing touchdowns for quarterback Keaton Hopwood on a one-yard sneak.
Hopwood credited his teammates for being able to sustain such an efficient drive early on, giving him the easy job of capping it off.
"The guys did a great job and marched all the way down the field, (running back) Jake (Rodawold) and those guys," Hopwood said. "They just gave me the ball up close and I scored."
After forcing a Lions three-and-out, the Wildcats took over late in the first and once again had a long drive capped off by a one-yard Hopwood score, taking a 14-0 lead just under four minutes into the second.
But the Lions were able to recover and tighten things up before the half. After they were dealt another three-and-out by a stingy Wildcats defense, a roughing the punter penalty on Wilmington gave the Lions new life and a fresh set of downs near midfield.
And they took advantage of the opportunity, as the Lions marched down the field and got on the board when quarterback Aidan Lombardo threw a dime in the back right corner of the endzone into double coverage, where Demetrius King made a nifty touchdown grab to cut the lead to 14-6.
"I don't know if we relaxed a little bit because we went right down the field and scored right off the bat, I think we did," Reents said. "Lisle had something to say about that, 'No, we're going to be here all night.'"
The air inside Jeff Reents stadium got a little tighter early in the second half when Lombardo took a 44-yard quarterback keeper to the house to cut the Lions' deficit to 14-12 just three minutes into the third quarter.
But that's when the Wildcats put their stamp on the game. Lining up predominantly in a deep I-formation, rather than the usual double wing formation Reents and offensive coordinator Barry Southall are known for, running back Jake Rodawold continued to move the chains for the Wildcats.
The 'Cats drove 60 yards on 12 plays, chewing up seven minutes of game clock in the process, as Hopwood's third score of the night came from three yards out to make it a 21-12 affair.
Reents said that a wet and muddy field from Thursday's snow showers meant they had to run out of the I-formation more, as the traditional cuts and counters in the double wing weren't as effective on the sloppy field and also said his offensive line did a better job of getting leverage.
"I thought (Southall) did a nice job — we went to our I-formation more because of the conditions," Reents said. "I think our offensive line adjusted — as the night went on, they got a little better."
Rodawold was the lead back out of the I and was the beneficiary of his offensive line, as he racked up 133 yards on 23 carries. He said that the Lions' defense made life tough for his offensive line, but the men in the trenches recovered nicely.
“(Lisle) fired off the ball real well and kind of took it to us for a bit," Rodawold said. "But being a good o-line, they came back and kept fighting for me, heping me fight to get yards."
And that play translated to the other side as well. Led by Hunter Doherty, who made a pair of pivotal stops, the Wildcats' front four allowed the Wildcats' linebackers to roam free and shut the Lions' down over the game's final 20 minutes or so.
"Every one of our d-linemen played varsity last year and we've got a lot of experience there," Rodawold, one of the Wildcats' linebackers, said. "They're all studs, they're all strong, they're all fast and they've all got great technique."
The Wildcats were able to extend their lead in the fourth when Allan Richards drilled a 35-yarder that would have been good from 50 yards out. They sealed the deal when Jack Narine picked off an errant Lombardo pass and then ran out the final four minutes.
"I think that's what good teams do they when they're going through a little adversity ... they hung in their and made some big plays," Reents said of his team's fourth quarter. "We got the big kick from Richards to get to 24 (points) and then Jack Narine had that nice interception."
After Rodawold's game-high 133 yards, Trey Shaw added 94 yards on 10 carries. Hopwood didn't attempt a single pass, but had 26 yards and his three rushing touchdowns. A.J. Meyers had 17 yards on five attempts.
Doherty had a pair of tackles for a loss. Matt Sanchez and Shaw each had a tackle in the backfield, while Narine's interception was the lone turnover of the game.
The Wildcats will take on the winner of Saturday's game between Dunbar (6-2) and Eureka (7-2). The Wildcats would play Dunbar on the road and Eureka at home, with a game time to be announced at a later date.