A year ago, the Glenbard West Hilltoppers claimed the Class 7A state championship.
With the way they performed Saturday in a 38-21 quarterfinal victory over the Edwardsville Tigers, there is no reason to believe the Hilltoppers won’t be adding a Class 8A championship trophy to their collection Thanksgiving weekend in Champaign.
While the Hilltoppers rushed for 192 yards, it was their passing game that seemed to make the difference against the Tigers as senior quarterback Cole Brady threw for 280 yards and probably the two biggest scores of the game
The bulk of those passes were caught by 6-foot-4 receiver Alec Pierce and 6-5 tight end Alex Pihlstrom, whose size caused all kinds of trouble for Edwardsville’s smaller defensive backs.
Pierce had five catches for 145 yards, including a 45-yard scoring catch just 47 seconds before halftime. That TD put the Hilltoppers ahead 17-14 at the break.
Pihlstrom had four catches for 69 yards, topped by a 25-yard scoring catch that capped Glenbard West’s first possession of the second half and gave the Hilltoppers (10-2) a lead that would never sink below double digits.
“We’re a running team, that’s our preference, but we can pass the ball especially with play action,” said Brady. “We knew their secondary was a little bit smaller, so we knew the chance was there for them to make some plays.
“Those two were unreal.”
Brady, who completed 14 of his 18 pass attempts, certainly impressed Edwardsville coach Matt Martin.
“He’s a player, a good decision maker, has a strong arm,” said Martin. “He saw the advantage they had and put the ball where his receivers could catch it.
“There were some balls we should have batted down, but they made the plays. Hat’s off to them.”
Despite allowing a touchdown on the game’s opening drive, a Dre Thomas 2-yard TD run capped six-play 63-yard march for the Hilltoppers, Edwardsville still found itself owning a 14-10 lead in the second quarter.
The Tigers sandwiched an 8-yard scoring run by Dionte Rodgers and 17-yard TD pass from senior quarterback Brenden Dickmann to Dayleon Harris around a 36-yard field goal by the Hilltoppers’ Logan Ryan for their lead.
But with five minutes left in the half Brady directed the Hilltoppers on an 80-yard drive that ended with him connecting with Pierce on a 45-yard score where the big senior receiver found himself alone behind the Edwardsville secondary.
“That was huge,” said Glenbard West coach Chad Hetlet. “We had that fumbled punt early that led to their first score and we kind of got the momentum back with that one. It was a big one going into halftime.”
After forcing Edwardsville into a three-and-out to begin the second half, Brady and the Hilltoppers were at it again.
This time, they needed just five plays to cover 63 yards, Brady combining with Pihlstrom on a 25-yard touchdown where once again being the bigger receiver proved to have the advantage.
“We always talking with the kids about seizing the momentum at the start of the second half,” said Hetlet, whose team will play 12-0 (Wilmette) Loyola Academy in the semifinals next weekend, “and in this situation I thought it was a big tipping point in the game.
“Because if you play a physical style of football like we do, it’s going to wear on a team and at some point maybe their will is going to break.”
The Hilltoppers added some insurance in the opening minute of the final quarter, as a 3-yard touchdown run by Ryan Driver extended their lead to 31-14.
Edwardsville’s only touchdown of the second half came on its ensuing possession, when Dickman found Daval Torres for a 23-yard score at the 9:25 mark.
Attempting to get the ball back, Edwardsville kicked off short only to have it recovered by the Hilltoppers.
Glenbard West responded with an extended drive which Thomas ended with his second TD run of the game, this time from a yard out with 2:55 left.
After missing last week’s second-round playoff win over Oswego with a concussion, sophomore running back Dionte Rodgers was back in the lineup for the Tigers
But his success was limited, as he carried the ball 13 times for just 41 yards and the one touchdown. Rodgers came into the game having rushed for 1,529 yards and a school-record 26 TDs.
“I was hoping we’d be able to run the ball a little better,” Martin said. “But they focused on that and were able to take it away. That’s what good defenses do.
“But I was proud with how we were able to throw the ball. Brenden played well. Our receivers caught the ball.”
Dickmann finished the game 20 of 23 for 216 yards and two touchdowns. Harris had 11 catches for 113 yards and a score.
The loss ended the high school career of Edwardsville senior defensive end A.J. Epenesa. A high school All-American, Epenesa will play college football at the University of Iowa after wrapping up what should be banner seasons in basketball and track and field.
“I thought we executed to the best of our ability and tried to play our game,” said Epenesa. “It just was not meant to be. They’re a great team.
“Now it’s up to our guys who will be back to start working hard getting ready for next year. And I want them to know I will be rooting for them while I am at Iowa.”