By Maddie Lee
Video by Brooke Rayford
It took more than 44 minutes for Stevenson High School to take its first lead of the game.
The Patriots almost lost it seconds later, but a controversial penalty nullified a Conant touchdown and helped the defending state 8A champions (7-3) defeat the Cougars (7-4) 43-35 at home Friday in the opening round of the playoffs.
“We just made one more play than they did tonight,” Stevenson coach Bill McNamara said.
The play Conant nearly made could have changed everything.
Stevenson had just taken its first lead, 36-35, on senior Peter Drozdzewicz’s 27-yard field goal with 3:49 left. Thirty seconds later, the Cougars had a first down on their 38-yard line when senior quarterback Kyle Bradley dropped back and launched a pass to senior wide receiver Palmer Graham. Stevenson’s Connor Crawley had tight coverage, but fell as Graham made the catch, and Graham strode into the end zone.
Graham pumped the ball over his head and ran back to meet his cheering teammates. Conant fans went wild. That all stopped when everyone noticed the flag on the field.
Offensive pass interference was the call. The touchdown was reversed.
Medill News Service video appears to show Crawley falling on his own as Graham caught the pass. Graham clearly disagreed with the ruling, arguing with the referee, but the call stood.
“I was not happy about that call,” Conant coach Bill Modelski told Journal-Topics.com. “I guess my problem I have with the call is that it was not consistent to how that was called all game long. We had 4 or 5 pass interference calls. It is frustrating. That’s just crying over (spilt milk). It is never just one play, though.”
The Cougars were penalized 15 yards and eventually punted. The Patriots came back and scored an insurance touchdown on Anthony Sibo’s 34-yard run with 59 seconds left.
And the second-half rally was complete.
“We knew our season’s done if we don’t perform in the second half,” said Stevenson quarterback Jack Sorenson.
In the first half, Stevenson struggled to stop Bradley, who rushed for 78 yards and three touchdowns as the Cougars took a 28-19 halftime lead. In the second half, Stevenson held Bradley to 15 yards rushing, giving him 93 for the game to go with 332 passing.
“We really struggled to run it on them, and that changed our balance a little bit,” said Modelski. “So that hurt us.”
Stevenson, seeded 16th in the Class 8A tournament, will play at No. 1 Loyola at noon Saturday. Loyola advanced to the second round by defeating No. 32 West Aurora 31-0.
Last year, Stevenson eliminated Loyola from the playoffs with a 24-21 second-round win.
Correction: The above video referred to West Aurora as Aurora. No. 1 Loyola Academy played No. 32 West Aurora Saturday.