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John-Michael Scumaci pushes away a Chanooka Braves defender.


Varsity comes up short in semifinal

Falls 16-8 to undefeated Chanooka 


Text by Patrick Z. McGavin
Photos by Renee Kaspar
FRANKFORT -- Justin Egan experienced his own epiphany on a late summer day. He felt a particular sensation that was both acute and revealing. It spoke to something larger than just him.
“Back on our first day, on July 25th, I knew we had something special with this team,” Egan said. “Right from the beginning, on warm-ups on that day, I just felt a type of energy that we were going to go very far. That kept going for the rest of the season.”
Egan has the best point of view and natural perspective. As a quarterback of the Varsity Pioneers, he orchestrates the offense, directs the team and is the best suited at gauging the team's pulse and spirit.  
His fiery drive and commitment has been on display since the beginning of the year. The 13-year-old weighs just 103 pounds, but he has qualities and skills that transcend numbers. Every time the Pioneers needed to make a play, Egan was an integral part of the process.
In the biggest game of the year on Sunday, October 30th, Egan had everything at his command. With three minutes left and his Pioneers trailing by a score, Egan was in his natural element. On fourth-and-nine, he did not flinch. He moved calmly to his right, created some extra time and threw a beautiful ball that star running back Luke Kedzierski leapt for and overpowered a smaller defensive back for a 19-yard completion.
The Pioneers had the ball first-and-goal at the nine-yard line. Two bursts up the middle by Kedzierski pulled the team on the verge of the goalline. On third and two, the Chanooka Braves anticipated the play and blitzed up the gap, and Kedzierski was nailed for a three-yard loss.
With little option but throwing, in a very tight windows and with limited space, Egan again looked for magic. His fourth down pass was intercepted at the two-yard line with 2:18 remaining.
Dan Witkowski tries to grab the foot of a Junior Warriors running back as Jalil McLaughlin comes in to support his teammate.
It marked the Pioneers’ best final hope of forcing overtime and effectively ended the team’s season with a 16-8 loss in a River Valley Youth Footall League playoff semifinal at Lincoln-Way East.
The Pioneers (8-3-0) gave the undefeated Braves (11-0-0) their greatest challenge on the year.
The Final Four appearance was a great achievement in its own right.
“We had an outstanding team, an unbelievable team that I am honored to be a part of,” Kedzierski said. “We had an amazing line. I think the group of kids we had, and the amount of heart they put in is what got us here.”
The Pioneers showcased their determination and resolve right at the start. Chanooka opened the game in impressive fashion by mounting a 10-play, 68-yard drive. Quarterback Josh Davis (12 carries, 54 yards, touchdown) directed the run-dominant attack out of the Wildcat formation. Running back Vince Bartuch capped the opening drive with a seven-yard touchdown run.
The Orland Park boys showed what they were made of by countering with a beautifully sustained 13-play, 56-yard drive that capably mixed the bruising inside running of Kedzierski, the quick and precise passing of Egan and some outside bursts by Mark Brannigan and Alexander Knight.
Egan’s seven-yard dart to Kedzierski and a five-yard swing pass to Brannigan set up Knight’s four-yard touchdown run.
“Our line is really good,” Kedzierski said. “You can’t do anything without the offensive line, and we did what we needed to do there, and we just made it happen.”
The drive exhausted nearly the entire second quarter. Even with Bartuch returning the ensuing kickoff 43 yards, the game Pioneers’ defense proved especially stingy and denied the Braves. The Pioneers had recorded back-to-back shutouts to start the playoffs.
“They scored to start on us,” Pioneers coach Jim Roche said. “We matched up, put points on the board. It was just unfortunate there at the end we could not put the points up that we needed. We ran out of time.”
Luke Kedzierski leaps to block a pass from the Chanooka Braves quarterback.
The Braves put together the game-winning drive on their opening possession of the third quarter. They adopted a hurry-up attack and caught the Pioneers by surprise. Mason Cave (10 carries, 55 yards) ripped off runs of 21 and 24 yards, setting up a one-yard run around the right edge for Davis.
“They caught us off guard,” Roche said. “We had a hard time stopping them up the middle, it seemed like. We knew they were going to run out of the Wildcat. We had a hard time stopping that quarterback on those runs up the middle, on the keeper. They were kind of gutting us. I thought overall we defended pretty well. We knew they were going to score. Unfortunately we were not able to outscore them.”
The Pioneers were not about to concede anything. John-Michael Scumaci went 30 yards around the left edge for the team’s longest play from scrimmage. The team played with courage and determination. The Braves made just a couple of more plays at the end.
“It’s unfortunate that we lost here, but it’s still a great season,” Kedzierski said.
Despite allowing the two touchdowns, the defense played spectacularly and kept Chanooka without a pass completion. For the Pioneers Jalil McLaughlin caught one pass on offense and made a great play to knife between two linemen to record an eight-yard loss against Cave.
The game came down to one or two plays.
“Our defense got it right back within two or three minutes when we turned it over,” Egan said. “The line was great blocking today, making great holes and great runs by Luke and John-Michael. The one play that hurt us, I think it was third and goal from the four, and the kid broke right through and made a two-yard loss. Then we had to go to a pass on fourth down.”
Success is measured in different ways. Making the Final Four is a badge of honor. 
“It was a great season,” Roche said. “I am extremely proud of these guys. I have had the privilege of coaching some of them for about seven or eight years. This has been a special group. I believe they will continue to do special things out there no matter where they end up.”
The quarterback took the loss harder than anyone, as expected. Justin Egan is undoubtedly to be heard of again. The eighth-grader is set to play at Sandburg High School next year.
“I will take away that you are not going to win every time,” Egan said. “Losing is part of life, and I am ready for high school.”
The following played their hearts out in helping the Varsity Pioneers reach the playoff finals: 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.
The eighth-grade girls who cheered on the team were: 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 Vilarreal and Meagan Walsh.
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