Along with everyone in the home bleachers, senior linebacker Ben Wong felt the atmosphere turn dicey in the last two minutes of Normal Community’s Class 7A playoff game with Belleville West.
The 27th-seeded Maroons, who needed two wins in their last two regular season games to qualify for the playoffs, had just turned a 14-point Ironmen lead into a two-point game with 1:16 left. A potential game-tying conversion was coming.
Fifth-ranked NCHS needed a stop in a bad way.
“It was a little scary there,” Wong said. “We just had to play with a little extra heartbeat at that point. We had just enough in the end.”
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After a costly delay of game penalty pushed Belleville West back to the 8-yard line, the Ironmen pressured quarterback Logan Betz and forced a throw 3 yards short of the goal line to preserve a 20-18 first-round victory.
“I think we all know it was a little ugly,” Ironmen coach Wes Temples said. “But this time of the year, it’s about finding a way. To our kids’ credit, they made the plays when they had to.”
The sixth-seeded Ironmen (9-1) will host No. 11 seed Benet Academy (8-2) on Saturday. Game time will be announced Monday. Benet defeated Hoffman Estates, 29-23.
NCHS was flagged eight times for nearly 70 yards, including two personal fouls that allowed the Maroons to extend a second-quarter drive for 6 minutes, 19 seconds that kept the highest-scoring offense in the 7A playoffs off the field.
The Ironmen got rolling in the third quarter when junior defensive back Franky West came up with a fumble recovery. He also blocked a pair of extra points, one in the first quarter and another in the fourth.
Senior quarterback Grant Price completed three straight pass attempts to senior Steven Towns for 56 yards, and junior running back Vershaun Dixon scored on a 7-yard run to give NCHS a 13-6 lead.
Faced with fourth and 2 from their own 42 on the next possession, Price hit sophomore Daylen Boddie for a 42-yard touchdown with 12 seconds left in the third quarter. That extended the lead to 20-6.
“We were just killing ourselves with penalties and giving extra plays — things we can’t have,” said Price, who went 13 for 20 passing for 159 yards. “But while we didn’t play great, the guys came through at the end of the game.”
The Maroons made it 20-12 on a 6-yard touchdown run by junior tailback Kriston Davis, who finished with 132 yards on 35 carries.
NCHS marched 15 plays on its next possession, extended by two fourth-down completions by Price to Dakota Cremeens. With a chance to make it a two-possession game, the drive stalled when a 24-yard field goal attempt went awry on a low snap.
That left the door open for West. The Maroons overcame an unsportsmanlike penalty to get from their own 9-yard line to the NCHS 20. Senior Jack Lanxon helped with catches of 34 and 36 yards. On fourth and 19, Betz hit Paris Johnson in a crowd for a 20-yard touchdown to make it 20-18.
“Our kids just never quit and fought their tails off to get to that point in the game,” Maroons coach Cameron Pettus said. “We just couldn’t quite get there in the end.”