WOODSTOCK – After a season full of blowout victories, a lingering question about the Sterling football team was how it would handle some heat.
As it turned out, just fine.
The Golden Warriors got their offense in gear after halftime and rose up on defense when they needed to on their way to a 22-10 victory against Woodstock Marian on Saturday in a Class 5A quarterfinal. Sterling will now host Chicago Phillips, a 15-3 winner against Lemont, in the 5A semifinals at 2 p.m. Saturday.
For Sterling (12-0), it marks the first time advancing this deep in the playoffs. Six previous trips to the quarterfinals (1991, 1994, 1995, 1999, 2006 and 2016) had resulted in six losses.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” senior two-way lineman Tyler Willman said, “and to finally be labeled, crowned, however you want to say it, as the best team to ever put these jerseys on, it’s just amazing. The job’s not done yet. We’re still got a lot of work to do, and 2 more weeks is the goal.”
The win was extra sweet for Warriors who endured a 29-22 defeat at Sycamore in the quarterfinals a year ago. Sterling had won the regular-season contest between the teams handily.
“After going through what we did last year,” Sterling coach Jon Schlemmer said, “this was something circled on our calendar, and something we really wanted to take care of.”
The Golden Warriors didn’t take the lead on the Hurricanes (7-5) until a 1-yard plunge by Nyrel Sullivan with 4 minutes, 58 seconds left in the third quarter put them up 9-3.
After the Sterling defense forced a quick three-and-out, the offense got back at it and produced another score. On a fourth-and-1 from the Marian 27, quarterback Trey Morse broke free through the line, spun out of a jersey grab by Marian defender Cameron Interrante near the 10, and raced into the end zone to put his team up 16-3 with 42 seconds left in the third quarter.
When Golden Warrior defensive back Alek Duran picked off a Marian pass early in the fourth quarter, it looked like Sterling would cruise. The Hurricanes, however, refused to go away.
Marian wide receiver Bryce Radcliffe got behind the Sterling defense and hauled in a 56-yard pass from AJ Golembiewski to put the Hurricanes in business at the Warriors’ 1. Two plays later, Gavin Scott scored on a sneak, after officials ruled he did not lose a fumble before scoring, to slice the deficit to 16-10 with 8:10 to play.
Marian got the ball back 3 minutes later and drove to the Sterling 40 before being denied. On a fourth-and-12 play from the Warriors’ 42, Willman broke through and sacked Golembiewski for a 7-yard loss.
“We knew that the pressure was on late, and they were driving,” Willman said. “We just had to stop ‘em, and that’s what we did. We kept our composure. We bent, but we didn’t break. We had veterans out there, and we knew it was going to be OK.”
The Warriors then put the game on ice when Sullivan, bottled up for most of the game, finally broke free and scored on a 15-yard run up the middle. He was able to high-step the last 5 yards, sending a Sterling crowd that clearly outnumbered their home counterparts into a frenzy.
“I knew I had to stick my head in there and get what I could get,” said Sullivan, who had 22 carries for 58 yards. “Coming into this game, I knew they were going to be a tough team.”
Isaiah Ryan’s interception with 32 seconds to play sealed the Sterling victory.
The Golden Warriors needed to rise up in the second half after some uncharacteristic offensive struggles in the first half. Four trips into the red zone produced only a 19-yard field goal by Alex Marquez with 2.9 seconds remaining until halftime.
Sterling was stopped twice from the 1, both on runs by Sullivan, when the game was scoreless early in the second quarter. Two more trips deep into Marian territory resulted in Morse interceptions.
“It was just bouncing back and trusting the guys,” said Morse, who completed 11 of 18 passes for 127 yards, and ran for another 124 yards on 17 carries. “There’s a lot of trust, and we’re not going to fight when we’re doing bad things. We’re going to stick together like glue as a team.”
Marian seized a 3-0 lead on a 40-yard field goal from Matthew Darbro with 3:59 left in the second quarter. The Hurricanes, however, were largely stymied by Sterling’s ferocious defense, with the exception of Radcliffe’s long reception to set up Marian’s lone TD.
“I thought our defense played lights out again,” Schlemmer said.
The win snapped a five-game winning streak for Marian, and each of those were essentially elimination games. Head coach Mike Maloney was thrilled his team had the opportunity to take down Sterling, 2 weeks after handing Antioch its first loss in the first round of the playoffs.
“It’s a credit to our senior leadership and the resolve the guys have,” Maloney said. “They love football, they’re a joyful bunch, and there’s nothing they want to do more than compete. We’ve got several guys that seem to step up in big moments, and we had a couple of sparks of that today.
“Obviously, Sterling’s a good football team. I’m just glad their defense didn’t score – they were scoring more points on defense than they were giving up. Offensively, they make you defend the whole field. That’s an awfully good team, and we just didn’t get the job done.”
Class 5A quarterfinals
Sterling 22, Woodstock Marian 10
Star of the game: Trey Morse, Sterling, 251 yards total offense, TD
Key performers: Gavin Scott, Marian, 109 yards total offense, TD; Marquez Williams, Sterling, 12 tackles
Up next: 5A semifinal, Chicago Phillips at Sterling, 2 p.m. Saturday