Brother Rice has found its groove at just the right time, and the Crusaders are back in the Class 8A state semifinals.
Forcing three turnovers in the first half, and breaking out to a big lead behind a strong rushing attack, 24th-seeded Brother Rice knocked out top-seeded Minooka 38-21 on Saturday night, keeping its dream alive to return to the state championship.
Sophomore quarterback Jack Lausch--a big reason the Crusaders have got hot at the right time--accounted for two touchdowns, and he said his teammates are rallying around each other.
"I think the biggest thing is after we knew were in the playoffs, after we knew it was one game at a time and it could be some our seniors' last game playing football, I think we really grew closer as a family," Lausch said. "The camaraderie is so much tighter than it was earlier in the year, and I think that really helps our play on the field."
Lausch rushed 15 times for 91 yards and a touchdown, and he threw for a score.
He was part of a balanced rushing attack that piled up 356 yards.
Brother Rice's offense received a big lift from the defense, which forced turnovers on three of Minooka's first four possessions--and on the other possession, Minooka missed a field goal.
Mario Brown grabbed an interception in the end zone to thwart a promising first Minooka drive, and Andrew Love picked off another pass in the red zone.
Denver Warren recovered a fumble off a strip sack on Minooka's fourth drive.
That helped Brother Rice (8-4) seize the momentum after Minooka (11-1) had moved the ball well early in the game.
Sophomore running back Brandon Rogers (3 carries, 26 yards) raced in for a 19-yard score after junior running back Willie Shaw (10 carries, 143 yards) busted out a 62-yard run to get the Crusaders out from the shadow of their own end zone.
After Minooka missed a 30-yard field goal, Shaw took a pitch and burst up the middle for a 39-yard touchdown.
Brother Rice's Jack Welniak added a field goal in the final seconds of the first half to take a 17-0 lead that Minooka could never totally recover from.
Lausch found Rogers for a 6-yard touchdown pass to extend the lead to 24-0 midway through the third quarter, and Lausch rushed in for a 6-yard score late in the third quarter, with a lineman carrying him across the goal line.
Minooka didn't go away, though.
Receiver Trent Hudak had two long touchdowns in the third quarter, first taking a quick pass from quarterback Seth Lehr and racing in for a 68-yard score, then grabbling a wobbly pass after Lehr was hit as he threw and scurrying in for a 45-yard touchdown.
Down 31-15, Minooka was driving midway through the fourth quarter, but after four straight Lehr completions, a high snap got past Lehr, and Br. Rice recovered.
Junior running back Josh Bell (15 carries, 96 yards) rushed in for a 3-yard score to make it a three-possession game.
Minooka's Connor Etzkorn had 2-yard touchdown run in the closing minutes.
Minooka coach John Belskis lamented his team's early giveaways.
"You can't do that in quarterfinal game," Belskis said. "They took advantage of those situations. Had we scored in those, this could have been a whole different night. But give them credit. They played hard; they took care of the ball."
Brother Rice lost the Class 8A title game last year to Loyola, and the Crusaders were 4-3 at one point this season.
They've won four of five since.
"I'm really proud of these guys, because they've dealt with a lot of adversity this season," Brother Rice coach Brian Badke said. "We [had] some changes and guys banged up and some injuries. We had three starters out tonight, and for them to be able to deal with that--they believed in themselves. I'm extremely proud of them. Starting with the offensive and defensive lines--they dominated the game."
Amidst an emotional post-game huddle, Belskis was still proud of his team.
Minooka made the quarterfinals for the second time in three years.
"We did some things we normally don't do tonight, and it's sorry that it had to happen in a quarterfinal game," Belskis said. "These kids have set the standard now at Minooka. We changed, I think, a whole community with what they've done."