The frustration on the Tremper football team’s sideline Friday night was as palpable and — as the game wore on — as steamy as the blanket of humidity that swallowed Ameche Field.
Every time the Trojans did something positive, something negative followed almost immediately, and the result was an ugly 32-14 Southeast Conference loss to upstart Racine Park.
Whether it was a fumble after a big play, a questionable penalty wiping out a touchdown or the defense giving up a big gain in a long-yardage situation, Tremper just couldn’t string successful plays together.
“It was basically the opposite of last week (a 27-14 win at Racine Case),” Tremper coach Jared McGranahan said. “As soon as we did something well last week, we were able to build on it. This week, as soon as we did something well, we either got a poor call or we found a way to make a mistake.
“It was kind of tough sledding, but that’s football sometimes.”
The loss leaves Tremper’s postseason hopes — the team hasn’t made the playoffs since 2010 — in peril, as the Trojans fell to 1-2 in the SEC (2-3 overall) with games against Indian Trail (2-1 SEC) and Franklin (3-0 SEC) the next two weeks.
For Park, meanwhile, the win was serious affirmation that the program is rising from the cellar under second-year coach Danny Hernandez, a former St. Joseph standout who played at Carthage.
The Panthers (2-3 overall, 1-2 SEC) went 3-46 in conference play over the last seven seasons but had close calls each of the last three weeks. Those included an 18-14 loss to Indian Trail after a late Hawks’ comeback in Week 3 and a 35-18 loss to Franklin in Week 4 after the Panthers trailed just 21-18 through three quarters.
They finished the job Friday, to say the least.
“I’m just proud of our kids, man, I really am,” Hernandez said. “It’s been a really tough three weeks. We know we have a good football team, and just to go through that with those guys — come close three times and then to finally break through tonight — obviously, I’m super excited for this group.
“I think they know they can win football games. I think they know they’re a force, and to finally kind of do it in convincing fashion was great for us.”
Park dual-threat senior quarterback Ricky Canady threw for 203 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 57 yards and two more scores.
His 6-yard touchdown run, a 46-yard touchdown pass to senior Terry Gamble — a flag was thrown on the play that would’ve brought it back, but the officials waved it off after a long conference — and a 30-yard strike to sophomore running back Shawn White out of the backfield gave the Panthers a 20-0 lead with 2 minutes, 36 seconds left in the first half.
“I’m confident with my backs and my receivers,” Canady said.
Tremper sputtered on offense, meanwhile, punting on its first six possessions.
Led by 6-foot-5, 210-pound senior defensive end Raishein Thomas — a commit to NCAA Division I Northern Illinois — Park’s defense put constant pressure on Tremper junior quarterback Ryan McGonegle and held the Trojans to 42 rushing yards on 29 attempts for the game.
But Tremper got life on a third-and-24 play late in the first half when McGonegle found wide-open senior receiver Justin Dierckens streaking down the left sideline for a 42-yard connection that cut Park’s halftime lead to 20-7.
After a scoreless third quarter, the Trojans appeared to get within a score on their opening drive of the fourth when McGonegle dropped a perfect ball to junior speedster Tyler Santi for what would’ve been a 48-yard touchdown.
But the officials called an illegal procedure penalty on Tremper — McGranahan disagreed with the call, to say the least — and the points came off the board.
It was particularly galling for Tremper considering Park had a flag waved off that would’ve nullified a touchdown, while the flag stood on Tremper’s would-be touchdown.
“They said the far receiver didn’t check in with the referee to be on the ball,” McGranahan explained when asked what the officials told him. “He doesn’t actually have to check in with him. He was already on the ball, so it’s a judgment call.
“It was a pretty important moment, and it was questionable, to be polite.”
The Panthers salted it away when Canady — after hitting junior Trey Kelley (five catches, 86 yards) for a 20-yard gain on fourth-and-18 from the Trojans’ 22-yard line — scored untouched from a yard out for a 26-7 lead with 4:20 remaining.
Each team added a window-dressing touchdown in the final minutes.
Tremper’s defense, led by the line play of juniors Anthony Santana and Connor Rosko and sophomore Josh Capponi, held on as long as it could. The Trojans allowed several big plays but limited the Panthers to just 103 rushing yards on 35 attempts — a 2.9-yard average — and 306 total yards.
But just too many things went wrong for Tremper to seize any momentum.
“You can only swallow so many bitter pills in one night with teenage kids and expect to not eventually hit a drop,” McGranahan said. “... I thought our kids’ effort was there all night. That’s something I’m very proud of. But, the bottom line was, we had a lot of things that just didn’t go our way.”