Doug Pham
Doug Pham

LOMBARD – Not so long ago, Glenbard East linebacker Doug Pham and his fellow football seniors had their backs against the wall.

Their 2017 sophomore season finished 1-7-1.

“It was a hard year. We had a game almost canceled because we didn’t have enough guys,” Pham said.

“Our senior class has been through a lot. Freshman year we were 4-4-1 and looking solid but sophomore year we lost a lot of guys. We’ve always been a small class but we stuck with it.”

Through hugs and some tears on their home field Friday, they took pride in the Rams’ most successful consecutive seasons in program history.

The 49-7 defeat to Marist in Class 8A state playoffs opener was frustrating, but especially for the 18 seniors there also was triumph for a historical playoff encore that many didn’t foresee.

With only three returning starters – safety/punter Jason Torrevillas, offensive lineman Connor Peterson and receiver Deon Cook -- the 10th-seeded Rams (8-2) achieved back-to-back playoff appearances after only one previous berth in 1999.

“From when I came on varsity, we really changed around a culture in making this a winning program. This year we were really doubted because all of our seniors left, but we really came and changed people’s minds,” Cook said.

“We really see the difference in the school spirit. A lot of seniors turned in their pads last week and we got the opportunity to play with our family one more week.”

The Rams also were Upstate Eight Conference tri-champions after graduating 19 starters from the breakthrough 2018 team. That squad achieved a program-record 10 victories by winning their 7A playoff opener and were undefeated UEC champions for the first conference title since 1965.

“If you’re successful one year, it’s not a turnaround. When you start to do it year in and year out, it starts to become an expectation. And I think our guys here understand that,” Glenbard East coach John Walters said.

“There’s an expectation in the offseason to maybe do it again. Next year, with 16 starters back, let’s see what those cats can do.”

Marist (6-4), 23rd-seeded, was a deceptive 5-4 with most opponent victories among all playoff qualifiers (56-25 record) and no loss by more than 10 points.

On the RedHawks’ first offensive play, star running back Amari Watkins rambled for a 53-yard touchdown. The RedHawks scored five TDs on their next five possessions for a 42-0 halftime advantage and running clock throughout the second half. Watkins ran for 180 yards and two TDs, and Hayden Mikesell threw for two TDs and ran for one.

“(At halftime), we just talked about keeping our head up and what we could do right. Fix ourselves and be happy with our outcome and our effort instead of talking about the loss,” Torrevillas said.

Getting the ball at their 29 in the fourth quarter, the Rams still were determined to score. Senior Armoni Gilford achieved that on a 6-yard end-around run with 6:50 left after catching a 33-yard slant pass from sophomore quarterback Connor Cerkas that reached the 14.

“We just kept talking that we’ve got to put it in there, work hard, just everyone do what they had to do,” Gilford said. “(That TD) was wonderful. I just had to put one in for my team.”

Cook finished with 971 receiving yards and 10 TDs – the Rams’ second most productive receiving season ever.

Without hesitation, Cook and other seniors agreed reaching the playoffs was how this season needed to end, regardless of Friday’s outcome.

“I’d rather have this,” Pham said. “If I could, I’d play 10, 20 more games with this team. I’d never want to stop, but all seasons come to an end and that day was today.”