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Speed-back Alex Knight runs just out of the reach of a Wildcats defender during their Pioneers playoff win.

Varsity turns on the jets in quarterfinal romp

Pioneers record impressive 32-0 win
over Frankfort Square Teal

Text by Patrick Z. McGavin
Photos by Renee Kaspar
FRANKFORT -- The Orland Park Pioneers Varsity has perfected its ideal playoff formula. The team combines a suffocating defense with an opportunistic offense and standout special teams play in taking its game to a higher level.
The difference over two weeks is striking, and the team’s growth and evolution has been something to witness. In the playoffs the Pioneers have elevated their game, intensity and focus to a different level.
In the final game of the regular season on October 9th, the Pioneers edged the defending playoff champion Frankfort Square Wildcats Teal 19-18.
That was then. This was all about the here and now, and playoff football.
Quarterback Justin Egan threw two touchdowns passes and the Pioneers broke the game open with touchdowns 25 seconds apart late in the second quarter to knock out the Wildcats Teal team 32-0 in a River Valley Youth Football League playoff quarterfinal game Sunday at Lincoln-Way Central High School.
“This is our sixth win in a row,” Egan said. “We are definitely on a roll, and we have to keep this streak going in the final two weeks of the season.”
The Pioneers (8-2-0) advance to play the Chanooka Braves in a playoff semifinal at 2:30 p.m. Sunday (October 30) at Sandburg High School.
Frankfort Square star running back Payton Orth rushed for 87 yards on 17 carries. He did much of his damage in the second half, which was played with a running clock and his team clearly out of reach. The Pioneers’ aggressive, quick and overpowering defense registered its second-consecutive playoff shutout.
“Nobody can run on us,” Mark Brannigan said. “They need to pass on us, and that does not really work against us either because we just swat that down. There’s nothing the other teams can really do against us.”
Following blocker Alex Knight (4), Pioneers runner Mark Brannigan (21) looks for yardage.
The Pioneers recorded three interceptions -- by Alex Knight, Zach Bateman and Jacob Coleman -- to preserve the shutout.
“Today we were just much more focused,” Knight said. “When we played them a couple of weeks ago, we were down a couple of players. We came into this game with a chip on our shoulder. We came out playing very aggressively.”
The Pioneers amassed 276 yards of total offense including Egan's 88 passing yards on three completions from seven attempts. Pioneers coach Jim Roche knew the team had to diversify its attack after attempting a single pass a week earlier against the Ottawa Eagles. 
Frankfort Square was bigger, faster and enjoyed greater depth than Ottawa. The Pioneers could not overpower the Teal Wildcats, and that was evident on the first play from scrimmage when running back Luke Kedzierski was stuffed for a five-yard loss.
But Orland Park regrouped and strung together a beautiful six-play, 69-yard drive. Egan picked up a crucial fourth down-and-short conversion on a keeper, and Kedzierski ripped off his best run of the game, a 14-yard gash up the interior of the Wildcats’ defense.
On the ensuing play, Egan rolled right and hit lanky receiver Michael Walsh on a sideline route. Walsh used his superior size to get to the edge and ran untouched down the right sideline to complete a thrilling 41-yard touchdown pass.
“Last week we did not have to pass that much,” Egan said. “This week they were a tougher opponent. On the first touchdown, it was a simple out-route, and Michael got into a one-on-one and beat the guy and was able to get down the sideline.”
Defensively, the Pioneers’ interior of Kedzierski, Adam Winistorfer, Michael Bobber and Jalil McLaughlin proved impenetrable, closing any space in the Wildcats’ attempted running lanes and putting constant pressure on quarterback Tristan Weglarz.
The Pioneers’ devastating defense and creative offense fused together to turn the game into a rout in the final minute of the first half.
Knight was the center of the action.
Late in the second quarter, on a third-and-long, the running back broke out of the backfield on a go-route and split two defenders as Egan lofted a sharp ball down the seam. Knight was the first one to the ball, getting an important first touch as it popped into the air.
Maintaining his concentration, he focused on the ball and secured it without losing his stride and broke free for the 49-yard touchdown pass with 1:15 remaining in the first half.
“It’s all about concentration,” Knight said. “I saw the ball right there, and I hit it off the defender’s hands and I thought it I could get it and run to the end zone. Today was all about being balanced in our attack. Our passing was on point, and Justin had a great game throwing the ball.”
Quarterback Justin Egan hands off to power-back Luke Kedzierski for a Pioneers offense that was hitting on all cylinders Sunday.
Knight outdid himself on the next play from scrimmage. The Wildcats alertly recovered the Pioneers’ short kick attempt at midfield. Trying to score before the half, Frankfort lined up with three receivers on the right edge. Knight knew exactly what was coming.
He stepped up and made a spectacular interception. 
“We had been watching film the whole week,” he said. “We knew when they lined up in trips right, they love to throw the screen to that side of the field. I saw the formation, and I saw the ball in the air. And I went up and got it.”
The Pioneers took over at the Wilcats’ 44-yard line. On the first play, Brannigan took a pitch, veered right and threw an option pass to Walsh inside the 10-yard line. Unfortunately, the nifty play was nullified by an illegal shift against the Pioneers. 
It hardly mattered.
The Pioneers followed with the identical play, and Brannigan swept right with the ball. He saw his receivers covered and turned upfield, breaking two tackles and then darting against the grain for a 49-yard touchdown run. 
“We ran that play a lot in the beginning of the season,” Brannigan said. “We won a game 6-0 (against the Bourbonnais Bears) like that when Knight scored. We moved back to it today, and it worked. The second time we ran it, they stuck with our wide receivers, and I saw a hole and I just ran up it.”
Brannigan’s exceptional kicking also highlighted the one-sided victory. He converted 4-of-4 point-after attempts and also boomed a massive punt on the opening series after the Pioneers were stopped three-and-out to start the game. His kicking brings a dimension to the Pioneers that other teams struggle to match up against.
“I used to play soccer, and I was pretty good at it,” he said. “My older brothers kicked in high school at Marist, and they taught me,” said Brannigan, who finished with 50 rushing yards on two carries.
The two touchdowns in less than half a minute swelled the lead to 24-0 and triggered the running clock for the second half. 
The Wildcats threatened twice in the second half but the interceptions by Bateman and Coleman kept intact the Pioneers’ run of eight playoff quarters without allowing a point.
Luke Masino, a well-liked and energetic young reserve whose selflessness typifies the sacrifices of the second- and third-string, punctuated the victory with an 86-yard touchdown pass off a halfback option from John-Michael Scumaci in the fourth quarter.
“I have six touchdowns playing in the fifth-quarter, but this was my first real game touchdown,” Masino said. “We have five or six substitutions who usually go into the game, and they do good.
“From the sidelines at the beginning of the game I was watching a lot of good passes, a lot of good running. We were ready for this game. We watched a lot of film during the week.
“We just got better from the last time we played them.”
Contributing to the Pioneers' quarterfinal victory were: Gage Fauber, Mike Clifford, Eddie Palomado, Brett Fasler, Kevin Zimmer, Danny Durkin, Aidan LeGrand, Tyler Milani, Luke Stefanos, Nathan Rodriguez, Ahmad Alrazzaq, Connor Dixon, Gage Fauber, Joshua Graska, Anthony Stotts, Matt Stubenfoll, Brett Laird, Nicholas Devos, Conner Anderson, Adam Zolnik, Tony Shamma, Anthony Dombrowski, John Alfarah, Danny Witkowski, Alex Kopley and Caleb Patton.
Spurring on the victorious Pioneers were eighth-grade cheerleaders: Efosa Atoe, Anna Crnich, Kayla Dombrowski, Maureen Fandl, Marisa Garza, Lexie Hansler, Maura Harty, McKenzie Hedinger, Kayle Hoak, Ella Jeffries, Kylie Kehlert, Nicole Kubacka, Morgan McGuire, Hannah Scanlon, Kasey Slusarczyk, Ava Stroobosscher, Hannah Stroobosscher, Brianna Timmons, Victoria Vargas, Natalie Villarreal and Meagan Walsh.
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