Fenwick senior tight end Ryan Smith had three touchdown catches in a 32-31 loss to Wheaton North Saturday at Elmhurst College in the second round of the Class 8A playoffs.(Courtesy Jim Krecek)

Sparked by the potent passing combination of quarterback Gino Cavalieri and tight end Ryan Smith, Fenwick raced out to a 31-6 lead against Wheaton North on Saturday night at Elmhurst College. Shockingly, the Falcons responded with 26 unanswered points to pull off an unforgettable 32-31 win in the second round of the Class 7A playoffs.

The first half was essentially all Friars, or more specifically all Cavalieri to Smith, as the senior duo combined for three touchdowns. Cavalieri (12-for-24, 156 yards) threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Smith (four catches, 102 yards) putting Fenwick up 7-0 at the 4:05 mark of the first quarter. The pair struck twice more for scores over the final six minutes of the second quarter on passing plays of 11 yards and 62 yards. The 62-yard touchdown play pushed the Friars’ lead to 31-6 lead.

Backing the Cavalieri to Smith show, senior running back Robert Spillane scored a touchdown on a 26-yard run and Michael Cahill kicked a 17-yard field goal as the Friars controlled the action throughout the opening 24 minutes of play. The Western Michigan-bound Spillane rushed for 245 yards and a touchdown on 38 carries and had three catches for 24 yards on the night.

Defensively, safety Richard Schoen had four tackles, a fumble recovery and an interception, while defensive backs Keshaun Smith (seven tackles, interception) and Aaron Garland (five tackles, four pass deflections) also contributed in the secondary. Linebacker Jack Rafferty recorded a team-high ten tackles.

“Our offensive line did great. My receivers were catching the ball and I definitely had enough time to get it to them,” Cavalieri said. “Our defense also played great in the first half, but we didn’t help them out in the second half.”

Led by Northwestern-bound quarterback Clayton Thorson (27-for-48, 389 yards, five touchdowns) and wide receiver Matt Bieglaski (15 catches, 247 yards), Wheaton North (9-2) produced a frenzied rally to squeak out the victory.

“In the second half we turned the ball over and couldn’t hold onto it,” Fenwick head coach Gene Nudo said. “Wheaton North is a high-powered offense and they’re going to get their plays. We knew that coming in. We had our chances, too, but we couldn’t capitalize.”

While the Friars (9-2) obviously squandered a huge lead, several questionable penalties called against them in the second half also contributed to their second-half debacle. In the final minute, Fenwick engineered a potential game-winning drive, but a late holding call proved very detrimental. Earlier in the second half, an apparent touchdown for the Friars was ruled an incomplete pass by the officials.

Needless to say, Nudo was far from pleased with the officiating.

“The fact that [the IHSA] put a referee in this game from Wheaton is a travesty,” he said. “I’m proud of our team and we should still be playing.”

Last year, Fenwick lost to Rockford Boylan 22-21 on a 90-yard punt return and two-point conversion with no time left on the clock in another crushing second-round loss of the 7A playoffs.

Marty Farmer contributed to this story