FORRESTON – Eastland-Pearl City coach Randy Asche had mixed feelings after his Wildcatz defeated Forreston 26-7 to finish the regular season undefeated and claim a NUIC Northwest division title.
“If we’re going to make a statement in 2A, we need to clean things up,” Asche said. “The score could have been 42-7, not 26-7. We’re still angry from not making it to the second round [of the playoffs] last year.”
Playing in what is considered the best 1A league in the state, EPC made it two conference titles in a row, and Asche had high praise for his opposition.
“Forreston is a good team,” he said. “I think the winner between Lena-Winslow and Forreston is going to DeKalb.”
Playing against a team that had a decisive physical advantage, the Cardinals (7-2, 5-2) managed to take a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter after stopping EPC on its first two possessions.
Facing a fourth-and-9 at midfield, Forreston faked the punt, and up-back Robert DeVries connected with Brayden Wierzycki for a 23-yard gain. An unsportsmanlike penalty on EPC tacked on 15 more yards.
A first down at the 15-yard line soon became a fourth-and-20, but DeVries found Dylan Hensley streaking down the middle for a 24-yard pass reception. One play later, DeVries scored on a 1-yard run.
“We were flat in the first half,” said EPC’s 6-foot-3, 265-pound tackle Boden Brandt. “We have a big line, but aren’t physical enough yet. We need to get that fixed before next week.”
EPC responsed with a 65-yard scoring drive, the key play a 31-yard run by Shawn Larak, who also scored from 3 yards out to tie the game 7-7 early in the second quarter.
Later in the quarter, Max Barkalow got loose on a rocket sweep for 50 yards, and Forreston looked to take a lead into halftime. But Walter Ollie stopped Barkalow 2 feet short of a first down on a fourth-down pass reception with 3 minutes left in the half.
“That put us in a hole,” Forreston coach Denny Diduch said. “Their linebacker made a big play. We could have run the clock out and maybe gone up 14-7.”
Instead, Donny Groezinger scored on a 61-yard pass reception from Deven Heeren, and EPC took a 14-7 lead. Heeren was nearly sacked before he got the pass off to Groezinger.
Forreston converted two fourth downs to advance to the red zone late in the third quarter. But EPC’s defense stiffened, and a hurried DeVries threw an interception in the end zone to Mike Harrington, the smallest of the Wildcatz at 5-foot-5, 140 pounds.
“We kept them in that drive with our mistakes, but our kids felt we could keep them out of the end zone,” Asche said.
Harrington’s pick seem to fire up his team, as it quickly marched downfield to take a 20-7 lead. Groezinger broke five tackles on a 24-yard touchdown run.
“We couldn’t get our offense going, and that wore us down,” Forreston’s Ross Williams said.
“Running that hurry-up offense gets them tired,” Heeren said. “I think our conditioning showed in the second half.”
Both defenses came up with fourth-down stops before the Wilcatz put the game away with a 2-yard touchdown by Groezinger late in the fourth quarter.
“They took away our fullback, and we had to get adventurous in the second half,” Diduch said. “They’re just studs in the middle.”