Oak Creek senior kicker Dragan Kesich, a 6-foot-4, 250-pound NCAA Division I prospect, has such a powerful left leg that sometimes it seems as if he’s capable of simultaneously putting the ball and all the opponent’s special teams players through the uprights from anywhere on the field.
So it didn’t surprise Indian Trail coach Paul Hoffman when his counterpart, Joel Paar, elected to send the gargantuan kicker out to try not one but two long field goals in a key Southeast Conference tilt Friday at Jaskwich Stadium, despite a fierce crosswind that blew out of the northwest at up to 25 miles an hour on a night that sent thousands of birds out of Dodge in a V formation 45 minutes before the game.
“He was consistently banging them from the 40-yard line in the pregame,” Hoffman said. “Fifty-yard field goals. He’s amazing.”
Even after a 51-yard try with 3 minutes, 17 seconds left in the opening half fell woefully short, Paar had such unshakable confidence in Kesich that he decided to have him try it again from 47 yards with 8:46 left in the third.
On a night when points were at a premium, what happened next changed the course of the game. But not in the way most outside observers might have guessed.
Kesich’s low, driving kick appeared to carom off the back of one of his linemen and unceremoniously came to rest in the middle of the field, about 18 yards from the line of scrimmage. Seeing it laying there seemingly for several seconds, Indian Trail’s Curtiss Tolefree III acted on his instincts.
“All of a sudden, Curtiss squirted out with it,” Hoffman said of the 50-yard return that set the Hawks up at the Knights’ 28-yard line for their deepest penetration of the night to that point. “He played some running back for us earlier in the season. That kid can move.”
In a flash, the Hawks had all the momentum they would need in what turned into an impressive 12-0 victory over the Knights in a crucial game that pitted two teams with matching 5-2 overall and 4-1 SEC records.
“I really didn’t know what was going on until I took a moment to look at the ball,” Tolefree said. “And then I just took off.”
Hawks wide receiver Kameron Lee certainly knew Tolefree was capable of such open-field prowess.
“I think that was a big change in the game,” said Lee, who on the very next play reeled in a 23-yard reception from quarterback Argjent Ismaili and later added a clinching 57-yard touchdown catch up the same right sideline.
“I didn’t know that was about to happen. It was unexpected. (Tolefree) played running back, so I knew he was gonna take it back some yards.”
Indeed, an Indian Trail sideline that’s had its share of Homecoming heartbreak was suddenly electrified.
“It helped put motivation on the team,” said bulldozing running back Xavier McWhorter, who scored two plays after the 23-yard pass from Ismaili to Lee and grinded out all of his 58 yards on 14 carries in the second half. “(It) helped get us back on the good side.”
Once they were on the right side of the 50 for only the second time in the game, the Hawks knew what to do to keep the tide turning in their favor.
“Right away, we had the call we wanted,” said Hoffman, whose squad has put itself in fantastic position to host a WIAA Division-1 first-round playoff game the week after its regular-season finale at Racine Case on Friday.
“We hit that ‘naked’ play to Kam, and he made an amazing move getting the extra yards. He just basically caught a ‘whip’ route, made someone miss, dragged through another tackle and got a big first down.”
From the 5, all it took was a pair of totes by the broad-shouldered McWhorter, and the Hawks had a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
“He’s a big weapon for us, man,” Lee said of the 6-foot, 196-pound sophomore. “When Coach calls his name, he’s ready.”
Still, there was the matter of keeping the Knights and their vaunted rushing attack off the scoreboard. Indian Trail was more than up to the task.
“Our defense played lights-out the whole game,” Hoffman said of a unit that limited Oak Creek to 201 yards and just 13 first downs, two of them after the game was essentially decided. “They really did. The coaches and players. The scheme and execution. The adjustments made to create some different stuff that they haven’t seen on film.”
There’s something else teams can’t simulate in a film study: Indian Trail’s size, speed and agility.
“We’re a very talented team,” said Lee, who snared the clinching touchdown strike from Ismaili with 4:03 left in the third quarter. “He just threw that up, and I just went up and got it.”
Hoffman said that the challenging nature of the victory was to be expected.
“It’s always going to be a ‘Grindfest’ against them,” he said, praising Oak Creek’s ground-and-pound style. “They play good, solid, disciplined defense. Same thing on offense. They’re gonna make you beat them. We did a good job of not beating ourselves tonight.”
All that was left afterward was to celebrate. Tolefree said that could wait … for one day.
“I’m real excited,” he said, still trying to catch his breath.
“I can’t wait to celebrate (Saturday) night at Homecoming.”