MOUNT PLEASANT — After time ran out on a game it desperately wanted to win, members of the Racine Case football team didn’t seem overly upset.
In fact, some postgame fireworks even gave a festive feeling at Hammes Field on Friday night.
With a WIAA Division-1 playoff berth on the line, the Eagles had lost to Indian Trail, 27-14, in their Southeast Conference season finale. But there was a feeling that maybe the Eagles wouldn’t be turning in their equipment for the season after all.
“I think we deserve it,” senior linebacker Chris Fish said. “We played a really good season. We just have to wait to find out. If we get in, we get in. We would play a real tough team, so we’d have to step it up.”
By 11:15 p.m. Friday, the Eagles (4-5 overall, 3-4 SEC) were listed on the preliminary list of playoff qualifiers by WIAA. That means Case is going to the playoffs for the first time since 1997 and for only the fourth time since they fielded their first varsity team in 1967.
The third-seeded Hawks and Case, a No. 6 seed, will meet again at 7 p.m. Friday in the first round of the playoffs at Indian Trail. The winner will take on either second-seeded Franklin or No. 7 seed Bradford.
While they closed the regular season with a lackluster performance, a late-season resurgence that saw them win three of their last five games was enough for the Eagles to qualify.
But there won’t be much time for celebration, because Case has some work to do if it doesn’t want to be one and done.
This senior-dominated team only rushed for 56 yards on 34 attempts Friday, an average of 1.6 yards per carry. Quarterback Ben Brawner completed 16-of-24 passes but was limited to 111 yards by a stout Indian Trail defense that continually put pressure on Case with blitzes.
“Their backers were blitzing and filling the gaps, so it was hard to find a hole,” said Myles Guyton, the Eagles’ leading rusher who was held to 60 yards on 20 carries. “I’ve got to give it to the defense. They showed up tonight.”
Actually, that defense has been showing up most nights. Under third-year coach Paul Hoffman, Indian Trail has progressed from 3-6 to 6-5 to 7-2. The Hawks have held opponents to 14 points or less in five games.
“We tried to play good, disciplined defense, stuff the gaps and just play to the ball,” Hoffman said. “It’s all about team defense, it’s about team tackling, it’s about getting 11 hats to the ball on every play.
“It’s about a relentless effort.”
Case took an early lead, scoring on a 28-yard run by Kobe Brown on its opening drive to take a 7-0 advantage. But Indian Trail junior Clayton Bishop responded with a 92-yard kickoff return for a touchdown as the Hawks tied the game at 7-7.
Case would only score one more touchdown the rest of the game, and that came after a big break.
With 2 minutes, 13 second left in the first quarter, a pass by Indian Trail junior quarterback Argjent Ismaili was batted in the air and intercepted by Jonathan Rankins-James. Brawner immediately responded with a 20-yard touchdown pass to Terryon Brumby for a 14-7 Eagles lead.
In the second quarter, Ismaili threw touchdown passes of 10 yards to junior tight end Jacob Seeger and 31 yards to junior receiver Kameron Lee as the Hawks took a 21-14 halftime lead.
The only scoring in the second half was on a 4-yard run by Indian Trail sophomore Xavier McWhorter in the fourth quarter.
The Hawks finished with a 6-1 SEC mark, a game behind 7-0 conference champion Franklin for second place. Indian Trail had already clinched its sixth WIAA Division-1 postseason berth in eight seasons as a varsity program.
For Hoffman, it’s been a satisfying journey as Indian Trail’s coach.
“We’ve tried to develop a culture, and the biggest thing is having kids who buy in,” he said. “It’s a day-in and day-out thing. It’s not just once a week. It’s every day at practice, every day with lifting and every day in class.
“They’re just finding a way to win.”