CRYSTAL LAKE – The hill did not seem nearly so steep this time.
The road, previously riddled with crater-sized potholes, was rather smooth.
Crystal Lake Central’s stifling defense made sure of it, allowing Grant only a handful of first downs and less than 100 yards before the second unit came in for the last drive.
The Tigers’ grind-it-out Godzilla offense did its part as well, cranking out a monster drive in the second half as No. 4-seeded Central defeated the No. 5 Bulldogs, 30-13, in their IHSA Class 5A playoff football game Friday at Owen Metcalf Field.
Central (9-2) will make its first trip to the quarterfinals next week against the winner of No. 1 Cary-Grove (10-0) and No. 8 Chicago St. Patrick (7-3), who play at 1 p.m. today. The Tigers broke their postgame huddle with one emphatic word: “History!”
“It feels great,” defensive tackle Alex Ibarra said. “All the hard work we did in the summer, all the work in the weight room paid off.”
Central coach Matt Fralick said his players began working toward this point right after their first-round loss to C-G last season.
“This is a goal we set in our summer workouts,” Fralick said. “It’s pretty special.”
Central started well with a defensive stop and a touchdown drive. The Tigers were in control in the first half, but Grant (8-3) scored late in the first half when defensive back Joe Sadausakas picked up quarterback Kyle Lavand’s fumble and returned it 18 yards, cutting the lead to 14-7.
“Kyle made a mistake, but he was also a big reason we were up there,” Fralick said. “We knew we were going to have to run the ball in the second half.”
Central threw for a while, but did not have as much success. The defense stonewalled the Bulldogs most of the game and scored in the third quarter after punter Garrett Gusakow put Grant on the 3-yard line. Two plays later, defensive end Connor Hines tackled quarterback Jason Bach in the end zone for a 16-7 lead.
“We were watching their film and they looked pretty good, but we had confidence we would be able to shut them down,” Tigers safety Luke Francis said. “It was just everybody doing their assignment, just like it was drawn up by our coaches.”
Central’s first-team defense did not allow any points. The offense went to its Godzilla package midway through the third quarter and pounded out a 19-play, 99-yard scoring drive that ate up 8:24 off the clock and iced the game. Hines, working at fullback, capped the drive with a 9-yard run.
“Central figured out that we didn’t have the guys up front to stop them,” Grant coach Kurt Rous said. “Push came to shove and we got pushed, there wasn’t much shoving going on.”
Grant had been playing without quarterback Kyle Whitman and running back Jonathan Wells, its best two runners, for a few games. The Bulldogs had no answers for Central’s defense.
“We took it to them with hard hits from the first play,” Ibarra said. “We were hoping to shut down their fullback first, then their second back. We shut them down pretty well.”
Central had lost its second-round games to Kaneland in 2010 and Chicago DeLaSalle in 2009. In the Tigers’ first playoff appearance in 1978, they lost in the second round to Lake Forest.
Now, they made history and will play in a quarterfinal game.
“Nothing changes now, we just look at the next week,” Fralick said. “Why not us?”