On the long bus ride home from Oswego, Belleville East’s Lancers could be satisfied that they had a chance to send their first round Class 8A playoff game to an extra session.
The Lancers always had an answer when Oswego pulled ahead, but when they needed a big play in the end zone, it was not to be. The Panthers (8-2) survived and advanced with a 28-20 victory.
East (6-4) came up short in its second straight playoff appearance, but the Lancers never stopped fighting.
Oswego had just marched 80 yards down the field to take a 28-20 lead with 1:16 remaining. On the first play from scrimmage, the Panthers were whistled for a personal foul. Then senior quarterback Andrew Millas hooked up with Shemar Welch on two passes covering 39 yards to the Oswego 10.
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Millas had plenty of time for three passes into the end zone after an intentional spike. But he could not connect, and his fourth down pass bounced off a Panther defender and hit the ground with 20 seconds remaining.
The Lancers were poised to tie the score with 3:56 left after a 63-yard pass from Millas to speedster Isaiah King. But the attempted PAT was kicked low into the line, leaving the Panthers with a 21-20 lead.
Millas struggled at times with accuracy, but completed 14 of 30 passes for 275 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
The Panthers managed only 58 yards on the ground in the first half against the smaller Lancers. But adjustments were made at halftime and Oswego ran the ball 27 of its 28 plays in the second half, for 190 yards.
“The defense did a great job all night,” Stephens said. “They (the Panthers) went to their full-house backfield and started grinding the ball and moving the clock, and we had a hard time stopping it. Oswego is a really good team. They are big and strong and play sound, fundamental football.”
Erik Vargas Jr. and Chad Marsh, both seniors, were the beneficiaries of the change to the power running game for the Panthers. Vargas carried 11 times after intermission for 96 yards (125 total). His 18-yard run set up quarterback Steven Frank’s 3-yard sneak in the third quarter to put Oswego up 21-14. And his 36-yard run set up Marsh’s 20-yard scoring run for the final points.
Marsh had 99 of his 108 yards in the second half of the turnover-free game.
Frank (11 of 17 passing, 144 yards) scored the first of his two rushing touchdowns on the opening drive, after big pass plays to Brice Robinson and Joseph Hennessy. Early in the second quarter, Millas responded with a perfectly-executed wide receiver screen pass of 9 yards to King (4 receptions, 107 yards).
The Panthers regained the lead at 14-7 just before halftime on an 18-yard Frank pass to a leaping Raymond Chmielinski in the back of the end zone. But once again, Belleville East tied the score, on a one-yard run by Damone Witherspoon following a 77-yard pass from Millas to Anthony Dean.
Oswego outgained the Lancers 392-312 but could never deliver the knockout punch.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the effort,” Stephens said. “We have a big senior group that led well, and the kids really fought to the end. It gives us something to build on for the future.”