RACINE — After regular drubbings in each of its last six meetings with Racine Horlick, including lopsided losses to end its season in 2015 and 2016, Indian Trail wasn’t about to flinch when it had the rare chance to get the upper hand against its Southeast Conference rival.
That was perhaps most in evidence by the way it shot out of the gate at the beginning of each half on a brisk Friday night at Horlick Field.
“My center, Mason Kochersperger, came up to me after we scored in the second half,” Hawks coach Paul Hoffman later reflected of a conversation with his senior captain.
“He said, “‘Coach, do you realize this is the first game this season that we scored on the opening drive of both halves?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, OK!’ ”
Powered by explosive plays on offense and special teams and an opportunistic defense that forced turnovers at critical moments, Indian Trail turned aside the host Rebels 45-26 to garner its sixth WIAA Division-1 playoff spot in its eight seasons as a varsity program.
More than that, the Hawks turned aside a nemesis that they hadn’t beaten since a 32-27 victory in Week 9 of the 2014 season.
“This is a huge game right here that we just won,” junior quarterback Argjent Ismaili said after he completed 13-of-21 passes for 176 yards and a pair of scores and rushing for 34 yards on 6 carries and another touchdown, all in the first three quarters.
“We haven’t beaten them in five years. We just clinched a playoff berth, but we’re not done.”
It was just such dogged determination that enabled Indian Trail to spring out to a 7-0 lead on Ismaili’s 10-yard touchdown run and then answer a pair of quick strikes from the Rebels, including an 80-yard scoring burst from star running back Davion Powell on Horlick’s first play from scrimmage, that would have deterred previous Indian Trail teams.
“You look at our record (now 5-2 overall, 4-1 in the SEC) and their record (2-5, 1-4) and it was like, ‘Oh, you should beat ‘em,’” Hoffman said. “Throw that stuff out the window, especially a team that’s ‘out-physicaled’ us a in a very bad way over the last several years.”
You want physical? How about senior Dylan Connell’s 65-yard return of an intentionally short kickoff after Powell (11 carries, 148 yards) scored his second and final touchdown from 6 yards away to give Horlick its first and only lead at 14-7 with 16 seconds left in the opening quarter?
Taking Tommy Ruiz’s squibber at his 35, Connell made a bee line straight upfield and barely blinked an eye when the unfortunate kicker presented a last line of defense at the Rebel 45.
“He always talks to me about how he used to play running back, how he still has skills,” said Ismaili, who leads the county in passing with 103 completions in 170 attempts for 1,266 yards and 12 touchdowns with only three interceptions. “I didn’t think he had skills like that.
“That was pretty good.”
Pretty good? The oohs and aahs raining down from fans on both sides of the field revealed that it was better than that.
“It was awesome,” said Hoffman, whose squad remained in contention for its first SEC championship.
“He just caught it and he had flashbacks to his freshman days when he played running back. He had a nice little stiffarm on the kicker. Awesome.”
Still, that only tied the game. There was still much work left to be done over the last three quarters.
A defense that forced three first-half turnovers to help the Hawks win the turnover battle, 3-0, appeared front and center when Connell pounced on freshman quarterback Blake Fletcher’s first of two fumbles (and first of three turnovers) to thwart a Horlick drive at the Indian Trail 49.
“He was all over the field today,” Hoffman said of Connell, who also snuffed out a late two-point conversion attempt by standout fullback Allieas Williams (16 carries, 121 yards) after Horlick’s final score of the night. “He had a good day.”
Indeed, that experience was shared by many dressed in purple and black, including standout senior split end Amariyon Lynch-Gordon.
Entering the night as the Hawks’ secondary receiving threat to fleet-footed Fred Ferati with 20 catches for 182 yards, Lynch-Gordon had a career night with 9 catches for 114 yards with a touchdown in the first 28 minutes and added 59 rushing yards on 4 carries and another score for good measure.
The offensive play of the game came with Indian Trail leading by the halftime score of 24-14 and facing a third and 8 at the Rebel 33 with 7:51 left in the third quarter.
Spinning to his right after considerable pocket pressure, Ismaili launched a Patrick Mahomes-type moonshot up the near sideline that Lynch-Gordon plucked out of the air despite pass interference and waltzed into the end zone with the clinching score.
“He gave me a chance,” said Lynch-Gordon, who added a 34-yard dash off a jet sweep on a fourth and 5 with 4:25 remaining for the Hawks’ final score. “I know I can make plays. I’m an athlete. I knew that if the ball was underthrown, I could go back and it would be pass interference but I still caught it anyways.”
Despite Lynch-Gordon’s diminutive size, that came as no surprise to Hoffman.
“With the crown of the field, I couldn’t tell if he was out there or not because he’s not a tall dude,” Hoffman said of Lynch-Gordon, generously listed at 5-foot-11, 160 pounds. “I was like, ‘Was he still in? Where did he go?’ But he was in the end zone.”
On this night, the hungry Hawks came out on top. And with a major milestone behind them, they intend to keep climbing higher and moving faster.