What a difference a year makes.
The second-year Kenosha Indian Trail Hawks looked like the state-ranked team they suddenly are Saturday afternoon, downing Oak Creek, 28-14, at Jaskwhich Stadium.
Just 11 months ago, Oak Creek clinched its Southeast Conference title by embarrassing Kenosha Indian Trail, 69-7. But for Hawks head coach Mike McKay, this had nothing to do with redemption.
"I don't think it's really personal for our kids," McKay said. "Our kids are really focused; it's just a next step toward reaching our goals. Last year was last year. Our kids really grew up in the offseason, and this is just what happens when you get some seniors involved."
Both defenses began the afternoon strong, as the two sides exchanged punts for most of the first half until a lightning storm halted scoreless play for 45 minutes midway through the second quarter.
Once play resumed, the Hawks finally found some offense, driving to the 9-yard line before the Knights defense tightened and forced a field goal attempt. Hawks senior kicker Brandon Deacon connected on a 26-yard try to put his team up 3-0 with 19 seconds left in the first half.
Oak Creek head coach Mike Bartholomew said the play stoppage was not a factor. If anything, it gave a defense that spent much of the first half on the field an early breather.
"Anything that happens for both teams, if you say that throws you out of rhythm, you're an excuse-maker," Bartholomew said.
In the third quarter, the Knights missed big opportunities on back-to-back plays. With the Hawks facing 3rd and 7 from their own 46, quarterback Zach Gianakos threw what looked like a sure pick-six to Oak Creek's Matt Hargreaves. But Hargreaves dropped it, forcing a punt instead.
Knights linebacker Nate Windsor blocked the punt, but the Knights had 12 men on the field, negating a potential game-changing turnover. The Hawks regrouped and drove far enough for Deacon to connect on another 33-yard kick.
"That was a huge play," Bartholomew said. "We work on running guys in and out, but somebody made a mistake and was in there when they shouldn't have been. Teams that win don't make those mistakes."
The Knights had a quick three-and-out on the ensuing possession, and the Hawks finally made them pay for a lackluster offensive performance. Gianakos raced 48 yards on a keeper to give Indian Trail a 13-0 lead with 3 minutes, 44 seconds left in the third.
The mistakes piled on for Oak Creek. A fumble led to another 5-yard touchdown scramble from Gianakos early in the fourth quarter.
Down 20-0 with 10 minutes to play, the Knights surged back. After forcing the Hawks to fumble, Oak Creek senior quarterback Jordan Strong hit Jamie Smith for 27 yards to put the Knights at the 1. Running back Derrick Stephan put Oak Creek on the board at 20-7 a play later.
After a successful onside kick, the Hawks were flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct and Oak Creek started another drive at the Indian Trail 14. On third down, Strong hit Hargreaves in the left corner of the end zone with a floater. In mere seconds, the Knights were within one score.
The Knights sent their sideline into a frenzy with another successful onside kick and appeared poised to complete the comeback. A steady stream of rushes set up 1st and 10 at the Indian Trail 13, but the Hawks regained their composure, and on 4th and 2 from the 5, a heavy rush forced Strong to throw into a crowd, and Oak Creek's last gasp fell incomplete.
Indian Trail's Andrew Jazdzewski broke loose on a 60-yard scamper in the final seconds of a clock-killing drive to put the stamp on a 28-14 win for the Hawks.
"It's a good feeling," McKay said. "Maybe I'm a perfectionist, but I don't think we played our best. I don't think either of these teams is going to walk out of here thinking they played their best. This is our third week in a row playing a defending conference champion. To be the best, you've got to beat the best."
Bartholomew acknowledged the loss of several All-Conference seniors has affected his team, but he was satisfied with his group's effort.
"It was a valiant effort at the end," Bartholomew said. "We just buried ourselves in mistakes earlier in the game. I knew from the film that Indian Trail is good, too good for the stuff we were doing."
The Hawks (3-0) will try to stay perfect next week at Kenosha Tremper (3-0), while Oak Creek (1-2, 0-1) looks for its first conference victory when its hosts winless Racine Horlick.
"The only way we're going to solve this is if we stay together," Bartholomew said. "I told them, 'Look in the mirror and ask if you're being the best teammate you can be.' I think they are. I think they're trying. It's just a matter of execution."
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