Football wins nail-biter over Zion-Benton

The football team relied on a late push from both their offense and their defense to get past Zion-Benton, 28-19, on Friday, April 16. The Wildcats improved to 4-1 as they celebrated Senior Night in their last home game of the season. 

The first half was a tough one for Libertyville. The Zee-Bees used a powerful performance from running back La’Zarius Geater to get a first half lead of 13-6, as the Wildcats struggled with penalties and turnovers. 

Senior quarterback Blake Ellingson said that the offense tries to “establish the run game pretty hard in the beginning, and then once we establish the run game, the passing opportunities open up after that.” But the run game could not get going early, as Libertyville’s outside runs were stifled by Zion-Benton’s linebackers. 

Equally concerning in the first half for the Wildcats was stopping the Zee-Bee offense. Junior defensive lineman Diego Portillo said before the game that “stopping the run was the focus of the defense at practice during the week before the game.” Referencing Geater, Portillo said, “he’s the only real offensive weapon. He can really stop on a dime and change direction really well, so it will be tough containing him.”

Connor Dickson (14), John Stokovich (24), and the Wildcat defense pursue the Zion ball carrier.
Connor Dickson (14), John Stokovich (24), and the Wildcat defense pursue the Zion ball carrier. (Andrew Brooks)

Just before halftime, Geater broke off two long runs against the Wildcat defense and the Zee-Bees were threatening to take a two-score lead at the half. But on a 1st down at midfield with no momentum in Libertyville’s favor, senior linebacker Beckett Abington broke into the backfield and lit up Geater for a loss of yardage. 

“In the first half, the defensive focus wasn’t exactly there. We got caught off guard a few times,” Abington said. “They were kind of running all over us and that number six (Geater) was a key player for them, but I think once we made a few checks against their formations, we could run them down. So that was a big stop that we could stop [Geater].” 

Abington’s hit proved to be a spark, as Sam Pinsel, Ty Lawrence and Joey Neal all made great defensive plays on the next three downs to give the ball back to the Wildcats. 

Trailing by seven with under two minutes to go in the half, senior quarterback Blake Ellingson took the snap and was immediately under pressure. He scrambled around in the backfield avoiding Zee-Bees for nearly five seconds before finding junior running back Tommy Latka in the flats, who exploded up the sideline for a 30-yard pick up. 

The very next play, Ellingson kept it himself and ran it into the end zone for an 18-yard touchdown. The halftime deficit was reduced to one.

Aiden Nolan (33) celebrates as Blake Ellingson (5) runs across the goal line. Aiden Nolan (33) celebrates as Blake Ellingson (5) runs across the goal line.
Aiden Nolan (33) celebrates as Blake Ellingson (5) runs across the goal line. (Andrew Brooks)

The third quarter was grueling. The defense used Abington’s spark from the end of the half to stifle Zion-Benton’s offense. Junior linebacker Jack Nevins had a huge sack to force a punt amidst a Zion drive, and senior lineman Lawrence made a big hit on Geater, which he celebrated by dancing in the end zone. 

“I just had to let them know,” Lawrence said after the game. “They were backed up on their own five and we needed that stop there, and the defense came through.”

The offense couldn’t put the ball into the end zone even with the defensive stops. With six minutes left in the game, it was still Zion-Benton 13, Libertyville 12. 

“The third quarter was tough,” Ellingson said, “We had some momentum coming into the second half, and we knew we could put some points on the board. But we ended up going scoreless in the third quarter, just not having that much success on offense.” 

However, after a massive fumble recovery by junior defensive back John Stokovich with under six minutes to play, the Wildcat offense kicked it in gear. Latka ran hard up the middle for crucial first downs and eventually, Libertyville was faced with a 4th and 3 at the Zion-Benton 27-yard line, down by one.

Ellingson took the snap and immediately rolled left looking for a receiver. The coverage in the secondary was perfect and forced Ellingson to take it himself. He dove towards the first down marker while getting sandwiched by two defenders. 

In the aftermath of the play, both teams fiercely pointed the way they thought the ball should go as the refs discussed whether Ellingson had gotten to the sticks or not. The crowd waited in anticipation, as the chain gang ran across from the other sideline to measure because it was too close to call. The chains showed that by the nose of the football, Ellingson had gotten the first down. 

On the very next play Ellingson hit senior running back Matt Brenner over the middle, who dashed around the right sideline for a 24-yard touchdown, giving the Wildcats a 7-point lead with four minutes to play.

Blake Ellingson (5) winds up for a deep pass down the right sideline.
Blake Ellingson (5) winds up for a deep pass down the right sideline. (Andrew Brooks)

Geater and the Zee-Bee offense trotted back out onto the field trying to answer. On the first play after the kickoff, senior defensive back Dillon McDonald forced a fumble. Then, Latka ran in an 11-yard touchdown behind a strong push from the offensive line. All of a sudden, the Wildcats led by 15 and never looked back. 

“I was excited. We had a tough game but that felt like it sealed the deal,” said McDonald about his fumble recovery. “It was rough going against a good running back, and we had to respond. That’s what we’ve been doing all year. We’re a resilient team. It wasn’t pretty but we scrapped it together, and we won.” 

Offensive Coordinator Chris Davis was proud of his team’s effort while facing the adversity of trailing late in the game. “Things weren’t necessarily easy tonight,” he said. “But we found a way and we persevered and came out on top, and that’s testament to the guys just playing their hearts out and doing a great job.”  

Many players gave credit to senior offensive line captain Adam Pressley for his sideline enthusiasm that they felt kept them in the game. 

“Pressley spent the entire game raising everyone’s spirits through adversity,” sophomore offensive lineman Trenton VanBoening said. 

“It was a really tough game,” Pressley said. “It was a fight, and everybody stayed in it. I’m a captain this year and I said, ‘You know what, if someone’s not getting going, I’m going to get him going.’ I got them going in this game. Now that was family, that was brotherhood there. I can bring some energy but we finished this game as a family. How ‘bout them Wildcats!” 

Pressley is one of the 28 seniors who played their final home football game of their high school careers. Emotions were high on the field after the game for many of these players. 

“I’m sad,” Abington said. “This was my last time that I’m gonna step on here and play with my boys, so it’s emotional for me.”

For McDonald, the game meant “more than I could say. We’ve been out here since September, running routes, practicing on our own. Just in anticipation for this moment here.” 

The student section is full of masked-up LHS seniors.
The student section is full of masked-up LHS seniors. (Andrew Brooks)

Making the final game better for the senior class as a whole was the fact that, for the first time all season, senior students were allowed to come sit in the student section by entering a raffle.

From the stands, senior Marc Michelotti said, “it’s really special to see all my guys and my classmates be able to perform at the biggest stage.” Senior Colin Watson added that it, “feels great to be back and see the guys we’ve been with for the past four years play their senior night.” 

The Wildcats’ season ends on Friday, April 23 with an away game against Warren. “I’ve got one more game against a really good team,” Abington said, looking ahead to the end of his high school football career. “You know I’m gonna step out there and I’m gonna play, like I’ve been doing for the past many years of my life, so I’m excited.”