'We had this game': Pekin's historic football season ends with heartbreaking playoff loss
PEKIN — Snowflakes flew and tears flowed from Pekin coaches and players, their family members and their friends.
That was the post-game scene late Saturday afternoon on the field at Memorial Stadium as a history-making season by the Pekin football team came to a heartbreaking end.
Lake Zurich beat the Dragons 29-27 in a Class 7A quarterfinal game.
Down 21-7 late in the third quarter, the Bears (11-1) staged a furious comeback then held on for dear life, stopping a Pekin two-point conversion attempt with 7.8 seconds left in the game after the Dragons scored on a 47-yard touchdown pass from Scotty Jordan to Kanye Tyler.
It was the first loss of the season for Pekin (11-1), which played in the quarterfinals for only the second time in team history. The other time was 34 years ago in 1988.
No Pekin football team had ever won 11 games in a season before this year's squad. The Dragons also won an outright Mid-Illini Conference championship for the first time.
"You left a legacy in a once-in-a-lifetime sport," an emotional Pekin coach Doug Nutter said to his team as it gathered around him after the game.
"Look at how you impacted this community," Nutter said, pointing at the emptying stands. "Look at all the people who came out to watch you play today. I love every one of you and I'll have your back from here on out."
Fighting to the end
Pekin senior defensive tackle Brayden Beckham, who led the Dragons' defense with 7.5 tackles, had a difficult time believing the season was over.
"We had this game. It should have been ours. Things just didn't go our way, " he said. "This has been my life for four years. I've been a starter since I was a sophomore. I'll never forget how the community has supported us. They made us feel like celebrities."
Fighting until the bitter end was the theme of other post-game interviews of Pekin players.
"We left it all on the field and we thought we were going to win until the end of the game," said Tyler, who caught eight passes for 114 yards, scored two touchdowns and intercepted a pass in his Pekin finale before he heads off to play college football, most likely at a Division I school.
"We gave it everything we've got. We have a great bond. I love these guys," said senior Tanner Sprecher, who ran 30 times for 200 yards. College football also is his future.
How Pekin competed
Pekin did things to Lake Zurich that no one else had done to the Bears this season.
The Dragons' 27 points were the most given up in a game by Lake Zurich. Pekin scored four touchdowns against the Bears. Lake Zurich had given up 12 touchdowns all season before Saturday.
Pekin outgained Lake Zurich 437-133, ran 73 plays to the Bears' 33, picked up 24 first downs to Lake Zurich's seven, and dominated time of possession 32:24 to 15:29.
Lake Zurich had outgained its opponents 2,789 to 1,921 coming into the game and allowed only 744 yards rushing. Pekin had 261 yards on the ground against the Bears.
So what hurt the Dragons? Turnovers and two long kickoff returns.
Lake Zurich has feasted on turnovers this season and the North Suburban Conference champions ate well Saturday, forcing four of them (three interceptions and a fumble).
"That is a phenomenal football team," Lake Zurich coach Ron Planz said about Pekin. "I'm so proud of our kids for overcoming the adversity of facing that team in front of all their fans after leaving our school at 7:30 this morning and making a three-hour bus trip down here."
Back and forth
Pekin led Lake Zurich 7-0 at halftime thanks to a 2-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter from Scotty Jordan to Bo Benassi.
But the Bears struck quickly in the third quarter. A 44-yard kickoff return by Spencer Kuehl set up Lake Zurich at the Dragons' 36 and Ashton Gondeck threw a 38-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Erkman two plays later to make it 7-7.
Back came Pekin.
Jordan scored on a 1-yard quarterback sneak and after a blocked punt by Pekin's Cameron Hodgson (the first blocked punt Lake Zurich allowed all season), Tyler made it 21-7 on a 2-yard run with 4:13 left in the third quarter.
The Bears answered with what turned out to be the biggest play of the game. Erkman scored on a spectacular 73-yard kickoff return, and it was 21-14 going into the fourth quarter.
A 15-yard touchdown pass from Gondeck to Erkman brought Lake Zurich within 21-20 with 4:53 to go in the game.
Pekin jumped offsides on the PAT attempt, so the Bears decided to go for a two-point conversion and they got the two points on a pass from Erkman to Jackson Piggott.
A fumble recovery in the end zone by Lake Zurich's Tyler Burkley after a mishandled Pekin pitch put the Bears in front 29-21 with 1:22 to go.
One last gasp
But the Dragons weren't done.
With the whole packed stadium and everyone watching the game online and in restaurants and bars around town knowing Pekin had to pass, the Dragons marched 79 yards in six plays and scored on Jordan's pass to Tyler, who was open in the middle of the field.
That set up the game-deciding Pekin two-point conversion attempt, a run by Sprecher.
Lake Zurich's David Penaherrera hit Sprecher in the backfield and Cal Grabowski and Burkley wrapped him up about 2 yards short of the end zone.
The Bears recovered Pekin's onside kick, and that was that. Lake Zurich headed back to Lake County with a hard-fought victory.
"We didn't change anything at halftime. We just had to start playing better," Planz said. "Our best players had to start making plays, and they did that."
Lake Zurich will play host to Batavia (9-3) next weekend in the semifinals.
A program with a storied post-season football tradition, Lake Zurich made it to the quarterfinals for the 20th time this season and will compete in the semifinals for the fifth time, the first time since 2017.
The Bears were state champions in 2007 and state runners-up in 2006, 2010, 2013 and 2017.
Steve Stein can be reached at (248) 224-2616 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpartanSteve.