WATSEKA — Moments after finishing a post-game interview, Watseka’s Conner Curry jogged off the field toward the locker room to a chorus of cheers from students and fans.
The Warrior faithful had a lot to cheer about as Watseka registered a historic 19-8 win over visiting Tremont on Saturday in an IHSA Class 2A opening round game. It was Watseka’s first playoff win since 2003 and its first home playoff victory since 1986.
“It feels great,” Curry said. “We’ve been working all summer and fall for this, and it feels great to finally be there.”
Curry made one of several key plays down the stretch as Watseka (7-3) savored the win over the Turks (6-4). The Warriors were clinging to a 13-8 lead with a third-and-10 play from their own 1-yard line late in the game.
The speedy receiver said coach Aaron Hilgendorf just wanted someone to make a big play so the Warriors could pad the paper-thin lead. Quarterback Drew Wittenborn found Curry in the right flat five yards down the field. Curry did the rest to deliver what Hilgendorf asked for and then some — a state record-tying 99-yard touchdown reception.
“I got the ball and just made the most out of it,” he said. “I had my teammates blocking for me downfield, and I made a move and just kept going. ... I heard someone chasing me down, and I was just ‘You gotta keep going, you gotta keep going,’ and I got there.”
He made one tackler miss, tight-roped down the sideline and outraced the defenders 99 yards for a 19-8 lead with just 4 minutes and 53 seconds left in the game.
Hilgendorf said he had confidence Wittenborn could make the play on third down.
“It’s a game of adjustments, and they went cover-zero and started bringing more guys than we could block,” he said. “We were able to attack them that way because we knew we weren’t going to be able to run into that. We were able to hit a big play there.”
Three plays earlier Watseka completed a goal-line stand, stuffing Tremont fullback Caiden Buster on a fourth-and-goal play from the 2-yard line. Middle linebacker Tylor Durflinger put the big hit on Buster, who tried to bull his way in off the right side, tackling him at the 1-yard line.
“It was going to (Buster), it was going to the opposite A (gap),” Durflinger said. “Clay [Dorsey] shot the other A and I knew he was coming to it. I just knew it. My goal was just to tackle him, pick him up and roll him back.
“Because if he got any momentum, he was going to run me over. I got underneath him and everyone got my back. The D-line did everything and helped me open up the gap.”
That stand preserved the five-point lead and set up Curry’s heroics.
“That was huge for us,” Hilgendorf said. “The defense stepping up that way and making that big stop. I couldn’t be more proud of them. We’ve been trying to build our defense, and we’re starting to get there. It’s awesome.
“If you want continued success, you’re going to have to play great defense.”
Jameson Cluver gave the Warriors a 7-0 lead when he sprinted around the left end 53 yards for a score with 2:58 left in the first quarter. The Warriors’ lead back finished with 80 yards rushing on 14 carries.
“My line got the push for me, and all I had to do the read and bounce and run,” he said.
On the ensuing series Curry intercepted a Tremont pass to set up a score. Watseka captilized with a Wittenborn to Justin Bunting scoring pass of 18 yards with 1.45 left in first quarter. That’s where the score stood until Tremont turned an interception into points with a short drive with :56 left in the third quarter to cut the deficit to 13-8.
Tremont finished with 327 yards rushing out of its winged-T attack and added 82 yards passing. It was the proverbial bend-but-don’t-break defense for Watseka.
“You’ve just got to survive and play the next play,” Hilgendorf said. “They’re going to hit sometimes, and they’re going to get some first downs. You’ve just got to be willing to play that style of football. If that’s the way Knoxville is, we’re going to have to be able to do the same thing.”
Wittenborn completed 8-of-13 passes for 184 yards. Ethan LaBelle had 4 catches for 48 yards and Justin Bunting caught 2 balls for 33. Curry added 24 yards rushing to go along with the big play and added 2 interceptions. Curry’s second interception came with 2:09 left with the Turks knocking on the door at the 10-yard line. Watseka finished with 288 total yards of offense. It proved to be enough.
“That was the message to the kids,” Hilgendorf said. “Let’s just enjoy this win and be proud of what we accomplished. That’s what the hard work goes into. We’ll enjoy this one, but we’re excited to get back to work because we get to play another week. That’s a good thing.”
The Warriors will hit the road to take on top-seed Knoxville at 1 p.m. Saturday. The 10-0 Blue Bullets picked up a 66-13 win over Rockford Christian in the first round.