By Joe Kozinski
As the seconds ticked away on Inter-City Catholic League’s drama-filled game of the year, the powerful and undefeated St. Anthony Panthers faced the underdog Blazers of St. Matthew, who had lost the previous week to the scoreboard-watching Holy Cross Crusaders. The fate of three teams rested on the outcome of this one game, which would decide if the ICCL would crown one regular season champion or if the title would be shared.
The Panthers of St. Anthony followed the explicit direction of their coach and promptly marched down field, using their demonstrative offensive line to surgically cut the blazer defense little by little. Running backs Luke Thomas, Walter Wesson, Eddie Arevalo and Charlie Peterson then pierced their way into the red zone.
Panther Quarterback Brandon Prokop followed a human wedge to the one-yard line on the 12-play drive, and then, with the certainty of the lead character, Peterson stepped over the goal line for a touchdown. Kicker Charlie Leonard struck the ball true and the score was 8-0 with just 56 seconds left in the first quarter.
Blazer fans looked a bit stunned, but the black-clad squad buckled up their chinstraps and countered with their own eight-play version of the same scene.
The Blazer’s drive would be a little less brutal but just as effective. Quarterback Bryce Martens orchestrated backs Isau Gonzalez and Joey Barkowski for positive gains, and then on fourth down and six found receiver Bernard Coutee in the end zone for a touchdown of their own. Gonzalez’ kick dissected the uprights and the game was tied.
The Panthers went for the Blazer’s jugular on their first play from scrimmage. But the long pass from Prokop ricocheted off an open Tyrick Kamau’s helmet and bounced into the air 15 feet before landing softly in St. Matthew’s defensive back Bortone’s hands, to squash the drive before it started.
The rest of the half, the defenses on both sides showed resolve dominating the stage and setting up the second stanza.
The Blazers got the kick and moved the ball foot by precious foot with the aid of a 20-yard strike from Martens to Mitchell Menting, but on the 11th play from scrimmage the athletic Panther Thomas climbed the ladder and picked off a well-intended pass.
The Panthers went back to their original game plan and moved the ball meticulously. Linebacker Gonzalez made five tackles in a row, the last one stopping the valiant Peterson short of the first down marker and the 20-yard line.
The big three for the Blazers got busy. Runs from Gonzalez and Barkowski and impromptu high jinx from quarterback Martens were no better illustrated, as he picked up a bouncing snap that had gone over his head on the run and somehow found a receiver downfield for a 30-yard pickup.
A false start penalty and a wheel route pass to Bartkowski made it fourth down and five at the 10-yard line with 30 seconds left. The fans stood, held their breath and hoped that the next play would favor their team.
The next play was right out of the Burt Reynolds playbook, as Martens ran to his right to find a receiver. What seemed like an eternity changed direction and took off at a full sprint, breaking tackles and making it to pay dirt and lofting his team into the unimaginable lead. A toss to Caleb Lusanga made the score 15-8 with 17 ticks left.
The Panthers had one last volley. On the kickoff the returner broke through the initial line of defense and then was introduced to Martens as the game’s hero stripped the ball and solidified the victory and the three-way log jam atop the ICCL standings.
“Our coach said before the game that if we played physical and played hard we would have a chance to win,” expressed Matens after the game. “The touchdown was by far the greatest feeling I have ever had playing football in the ICCL.”
“Bryce Martens is a special kid: he’s smart, he’s competitive and he’s a leader,” remarked Ben Demokos, Blazer coach. “Our super-secret play was hiking the football over his head (it happened three times), and he made plays on pure instinct.”
“It’s a tough loss for our kids and should be a learning experience going into the post-season. The busted plays of St. Matt’s really killed us,” remarked Panther Coach Jason Piontek. “We aren’t handing in our shoulder pads and ending our season on this game, we will continue to work hard at practice and be ready to compete in the playoffs.”
The Crusaders of Holy Cross held up their end of the three-way tie by upending the Mishawaka Catholic Saints 18-0, behind touchdown runs from Asante Anglin and Gavin Stefanik. The game highlight was a 48-yard strike from quarterback Matt Eck to Jack Futa.
ICCL FINAL STANDINGS The ICCL post-season starts this weekend at St. Joseph High School. The end of season standings are Holy Cross, 3 and 1; St. Anthony, 3 and 1; St. Matthew 3 and 1; Mishawaka Catholic, 0 and 3 and West Side Catholic, 0 and 3. More highlights, scores and schedules can be found at www.icclsports.org.
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