Potent Knights capitalize on Wilmington turnovers

Eric Fisher

The Wildcats knew what it would take to defeat the defending Class 3A state champions Saturday: Keep the ball out of the hands of IC Catholic Prep’s potent offense.
Wilmington implemented their game plan well, having possession 38:45 minutes. But the hosting Knights made the most of the 9:15 minutes they had the ball.
In fact on their very first play from scrimmage they broke for an 80-yard touchdown run by Lazerick Eatman, their star running back. It was the same thing that happened to Wilmington a year ago when they lost to IC Catholic in the quarterfinal round.
Eatman carried the ball just 10 times all night, scoring four touchdowns (80, 50, 30 and 14 yards) while amassing 248 yards to kill Wilmington’s hope of advancing with a 46-21 defeat.
    “He’s special on this turf,” Wilmington coach Jeff Reents said of Eatman. “There were times we had some guys there and missed him. And there’s time we had guys there and he made some moves and we weren’t going to get him. He’s a special athlete, he’s a real special athlete in 3A  particularly, he’s a special talent.”
    The Wildcats kept the game close in the first half by grinding their way down field. The ‘Cats burned up half of the first quarter during their first possession, putting together a 10-play drive before punting near midfield.
    The Knights needed less than :20 seconds to score.
    Wilmington stuck with their game plan on their next possession, using seven minutes on an 11-play, 50-yard drive to get to first-and-goal from the one. Sophomore quarterback Keaton Hopwood then drilled it into the end zone and a good point-after kick by Trey Shaw put the ‘Cats up 7-6.
    Just over one minute later, IC Catholic regained the lead off an Eatman 50-yard run. They got the two-point conversion to go up 14-7.
    But credit the ‘Cats for not letting up. They methodically weakened the Knight’s defense by mixing up runs by Conner Dempsay and Matteo Lombardi, gaining 42 yards in five plays before facing a third-and-eight  from 11 yards out. That’s when Hopwood rolled out to hit Dempsay in the end zone with a bullet pass to tie it up 14-14.
    “We had to play perfect football tonight. And for a while there, offensively, we were doing well,” Reents said. “We controlled time and possession. We did some nice things that way. Offensively, the first half it went just like we wanted it to.”
    IC Catholic needed just three plays to regain the lead, this time off a quarterback keeper by CJ West. Score 21-14 with 5:48 left before the intermission.
    Then came a gift from the guys wearing black and white stripes. Wilmington was steaming ahead and was just about to enter the read zone when referees signaled a fumble recovery for IC Catholic. To the dismay of Wilmington coaches, neither line judge threw in a bean bag at the point of the fumble, instead it was called when a Knight defender exited a dog pile with the ball in hand.
    The questionable call left Wildcat coaches and fans fuming. The way the ‘Cats were moving they likely would have scored and entered the second half tied 21-21. Instead, they trailed 21-14.
    “And then we shot ourselves in the foot in the second half. We knew coming in they were a great team. We knew we had to keep the explosion plays away, and we couldn’t do that tonight.   The second half they made some adjustments. It made it tougher on us and then we made some mistakes,” commented Reents.
    The Knights made it 27-14 midway through the third quarter followed by back-to-back fumbles from Wilmington, which the hosts converted into touchdowns. Before the third period was through the ‘Cats trailed 46-14.
    In the fourth Lombardi broke free for a 37-yard scoring run to close the gap to 46-21 but the damage had already been done.
    “We needed to keep that momentum and we couldn’t do it. And then we had some turnovers ourselves and shot ourselves in the foot. And then once you get behind these guys like we did, it makes it a tough deal,” Reents admitted.
    Lombardi, a senior, finished with 174 yards rushing in 22 attempts to finish the season with 1,409 total yards, sixth on the WHS all time rushing list.
    “Matteo was awesome. He’s grown all season long. He’s one of those kids, he’s an explosive kid. If he’s able to turn the corner tonight, he’s able to make some things happen. He can make people miss. He’s a special athlete who will be missed,” Reents said.
    Dempsay, who will be back next year, had 27 carries for 80 yards to net out 1,284 yards for the season.
    Senior Josh Jones gained 23 yards in five attempts to end the season with 403 total yards.
    IC Catholic finished the contest with 417 yard on offense while Wilmington had 289 yards.
    “We were doing it there for awhile and then we couldn’t pull it off. And they got the ball more and more. The first half though, we wanted to keep the time clock as much as on our side. We were taking our time in the huddle and that’s what you have to do against them because they’re so explosive on offense,” Reents added.
    He praised several seniors who played their hearts out on defense including Jon Gholson with five tackles, Anders Almberg with four, Andrew Gramlich with three, Jones in for two stops, along with Keith Lamaster, Blake Geiss, Jake Hill, William VanDuyne, Andrew White, Brandon Hairald and Lombardi.
    “It’s been one of the most rewarding years I’ve ever had as far as coaching. We had just three returners coming back on both sides of the ball,” Reents said. “We were here last year in the quarterfinals and if you would’ve told me last year you have to replace everybody, we’re going to be back in the quarterfinals, I would’ve been surprised at that.
    “But boy, our kids battled hard, played a great I-8 schedule and they just got better and better each week and they believed in each other,” Reents continued. “That’s what makes it tough about saying good-bye to them tonight. It stinks that football is over for us and we’ll get going here soon enough but we’ll say good-bye to our seniors and thank them for a terrific season.”
    The ‘Cats finish the season with a 10-2 record, winning the I-8 Conference (Small) title for the 11th year in a row and making their 23rd straight playoff appearance.