Football: Wheaton St. Francis hands Rochelle quarterfinal loss

Senior Landon DeLille tackles Wheaton St. Francis running back Amari Head during the Rochelle Hub varsity football game against the Spartans on Saturday. (Photo by Russell Hodges)

Taft eclipses 1,000 yards on season as Hubs fall 35-16

ROCHELLE — The Rochelle Hub varsity football team executed its first offensive series to perfection during Saturday’s IHSA 4A State Quarterfinal matchup against Wheaton St. Francis.

Using 13 consecutive runs to move the ball 80 yards and bleed nearly 10 minutes off the first-quarter clock, Rochelle took the early lead and scored the first touchdown of the postseason allowed by the Spartan defense. Sophomore Erich Metzger cashed in the opening drive, rushing for a 1-yard score on fourth down before senior Garrett Gensler ran outside for the 2-point conversion to help give the Hubs an 8-0 advantage over the state-ranked Spartans.

Moving the ball proved difficult for the remainder of the game, however, as the No. 3 seed St. Francis held the No. 7 seed Rochelle to a 3-for-7 conversion rate on fourth down and ultimately eliminated the Hubs 35-16 on a cold and snowy afternoon at Rochelle Township High School. Rochelle finished the season 9-3 overall and 4-1 in the Interstate 8/Kishwaukee River Blue.

“The first half of the game went exactly how we drew it up in the meeting room,” head coach Kyle Kissack said. “We made a mistake late in the third quarter and we fell behind schedule. It became really tough after that and we’re not built to come back from those kinds of mistakes against a team like that. We did a really nice job in the first half and the kids believed in our game plan. That first drive was exactly what we were looking for as we started the game.”

St. Francis needed just one play to find the endzone, with running back Amari Head breaking loose down the Spartan sideline for a 61-yard touchdown rush. Rochelle maintained an 8-6 lead after forcing an incomplete pass on the 2-point conversion attempt, but a fourth-down stop by the St. Francis defense on the next Hub series led to an 11-yard touchdown from running back Brady Piper, who led the Spartan offense with 78 yards and three scores on the ground.

Rochelle punted on its last offensive drive of the first half, but the Hub defense stood tall as the Spartans tried to extend their lead before halftime. After a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, sophomore lineman Kaiden Morris sacked St. Francis quarterback Alessio Milivojevic to keep the Spartans, who held a 12-8 lead after the second quarter, away from the endzone.

“It was a tremendous effort by our kids across the board and that was from trusting the process and staying prepared,” Kissack said. “The kids played with confidence on the defensive side of the ball, especially against some players on the St. Francis side who are collegiate prospects. I’m really proud of how our defense hung in there against a really dynamic football team.”

Two penalties on the offensive line doomed St. Francis on its opening drive of the second half, allowing the Hubs to put their offense back on the field after a Spartan punt. But another fourth-down stop by the St. Francis defense enabled the Spartans to go ahead 20-8 after offensive lineman and Illinois recruit TJ McMillen motioned under center and took a goal-line snap for a 1-yard touchdown. Kent State recruit Dash Dorsey added the 2-point conversion.

Trailing 20-8 late in the third quarter, Rochelle gained back-to-back first downs on its next series before a bad exchange led to a fumble and a St. Francis recovery. The Spartans capitalized on the Rochelle mistake, scoring on a 5-yard touchdown run and 2-point conversion from Piper to surge ahead 28-8. A series of sacks led to another fourth-down stop for St. Francis and a 3-yard touchdown run from Piper that helped the Spartans take a 35-6 lead in the fourth quarter.

“It’s never easy to lose, especially when it’s the last loss, but there was nothing about the game that our kids should second guess,” Kissack said. “Our kids emptied the tank today. They went all in and we came up short in a few situations where we weren’t able to make those game-changing plays. The kids stuck together through some adverse moments and they finished well. I’m very proud of this group and how they bonded throughout the season.”

The Hubs scored last despite the loss, with senior wingback Trey Taft exploding off the left side for a 67-yard touchdown run that elevated him over 1,000 rushing yards on the season. Taft led Rochelle with 104 yards on the ground, while Metzger rushed for 98 yards in the game. Junior linebacker Brock Metzger totaled a team-high eight tackles and senior defensive end Landon DeLille recorded five tackles including two tackles for loss to aid the Hub defense on Saturday.