Blessed with quick feet, elusive moves and great vision, Fenwick senior Conner Lillig is an outstanding running back. During Saturday’s 31-10 victory over Hononegah at Triton College in a first round game of the Class 7A state playoffs, Lillig showed why he has as much substance as style on the football field.
After the Friars’ first offensive series, Lillig left the game with a left shoulder injury. Although Fenwick led 10-7 at halftime, courtesy of a Connor Hendzel 29-yard field goal and quarterback Jacob Keller’s 31-yard touchdown pass to Alec Polston, the team clearly missed its top running back.
Jason Ivery, Michael Paunove and Jackson Haeflinger took their turns carrying the rock, but Fenwick struggled running the ball specifically and offensively in general.
As the Friars gathered in the north end zone for a final halftime huddle, Lillig suddenly raced on to the field in full uniform (versus the ice bag on his left shoulder look for most of the first half).
Talk about a dramatic entrance.
Upon his return in the second half, Lillig capped off a 4-play, 49-yard scoring drive with a 9-yard run, extending the Friars’ lead to 17-7 with 10:12 left in the third quarter. He added another touchdown on a 5-yard catch which gave Fenwick a 24-7 advantage midway through the third.
Although Lillig finished with two touchdowns, 46 yards rushing on seven carries and two catches for six yards, his leadership and toughness paid huge dividends for Fenwick.
“I felt I could still play and contribute so I really wanted to get back into the game,” Lillig said. “This is the playoffs and I want to do everything I can to help my team win. There’s no way I wasn’t coming back into the game.”
Keller also played well, completing 15 of 24 passes for 213 yards, two TDs and an interception. Tight end Jack Henige (6 catches, 92 yards) and wide receivers Mike O’Laughlin (3 catches, 57 yards) and Polston (3 catches, 47 yards) provided Keller plenty of options in the passing game.
Led by linebacker Brett Moorman (10 tackles) and defensive lineman Adrian Nourse (sack), Fenwick held Hononegah scoreless in the third quarter.
Lillig’s spark coupled with renewed intensity by the Fenwick defense proved too much for the visiting Indians to overcome. Hononegah’s lone touchdown of the day was scored by Christian Fausel on a 4-yard run in the closing seconds of the first half. Quarterback Dominic Ballano (8-for-26, 148 yards), running back Dallas Washington and wide receiver Vito Guerrero also led Hononegah offensively.
“We weren’t playing very well in the first half,” Fenwick coach Gene Nudo said. “We were just off without Conner. He came back into the game and gave us a nice spark. We made a couple of plays and the kids played better in the second half.”
“Other guys really stepped up as well like Brett Moorman, Ellis Taylor and Marty Stein on defense. Those guys really set the tone. It’s always tougher in the playoffs, but we’re excited to play our next round game (against Lake Zurich) at home.”
Junior kicker Nathan Eccles closed out the Indians’ scoring with a 26-yard field goal to make the score 24-10 at 11:55 of the fourth quarter. Set up a brilliant one-handed catch for nine yards by Henige, Haelfinger plunged into the end zone on a 2-yard run to give Fenwick a 31-10 lead midway through the fourth quarter.
Although Hononegah (5-5) moved the ball better in the second half, the Indians still managed to score just three points.
Taylor (6 tackles, sack), Stein, Moorman, Ryan Chapman, Alex Pierson (interception), Lorenzano Blakeney, Lorente Blakeney (6.5 tackles) and Jacob Kaminski led the Fenwick defense. While the team is primarily a senior-laden group, Kaminski has emerged quickly as a standout freshman with a bright future.
“We all have the same goals as a defensive unit,” Taylor said. “That’s why we mesh so well together. After going 3-6 last season, the returning players were determined to turn things around for the better.
“I just try to play my role and make big, timely plays. It’s been an amazing senior year for me. To have a 9-1 record and still be alive in the playoffs, we’re all excited about what’s to come.”
Fenwick (9-1) will face Lake Zurich (8-2) next in the second round of the 7A playoffs. The Bears blew out Harlem 40-0 to set up their meeting with Fenwick, which will host the game at Triton College on Saturday, Nov. 5 at 6 p.m.
“I know Coach (David) Proffitt well at Lake Zurich,” Nudo said. “We have a lot of respect for their program. We’re looking forward to the challenge and will need to play better next week.”