Evanston’s football team almost shoved an 800-pound gorilla off the program’s back Friday night.

And the Wildkits even won the turnover battle against long-time tormentor Maine South.

But the opportunistic Hawks returned an interception for a touchdown, then forced a fumble when the hosts were marching for a potential game-tying score with 4 minutes, 31 seconds remaining in the Central Suburban League South division opener for both schools.

Maine South’s 21-13 victory disappointed a capacity Homecoming crowd at Lazier Field and snapped a 4-game winning string for ETHS. The Wildkits haven’t defeated the Hawks since back in 1999, when South switched from the CSL North to the CSL South.

Those two turnovers and a whopping 14 penalties for 123 yards frustrated a Wildkit squad that knows deep down it can compete on an equal basis with the Hawks this year.

Evanston defensive back Gerrad Lamour (6) grabs an interception in front of a fallen Maine South receiver, one of three turnovers forced by the Wildkits.

Now all the losers can do is hope for a rematch with Maine South (4-1) in the Class 8A Illinois High School Association state playoffs.

“We lost to them when I was a sophomore and they devastated us twice last year,” said senior wide receiver Mike Axelrood, who led the Wildkits with 8 catches for 111 yards, including a 33-yard touchdown reception. “But playing them very close tonight still doesn’t cut it. We do have to look on the bright side because we played our hearts out. We played great and we’ve just got to learn from this.

“Fumbles happen, penalties happen and we know that we’re better than the way we played tonight. This is NOT the end of our season.”

“It was a fight to the finish and we battled them to the end. I’m proud of our effort, but our execution wasn’t there and that’s what makes it such a tough loss,” said Evanston head coach Mike Burzawa. “We had too many yellow flags, and that’s our fault. We’ve got to clean up some things.

“Not finishing that first drive came back to bite us. And then we turned it over in the red zone late, too.”

Mike Axelrood (37) of Evanston grabs the ball in front of South defender Brian Barry. Axelrood caught eight passes for 111 yards and a touchdown but couldn’t prevent Evanston’s first loss of the season. 

A fumbled fair catch attempt — South’s third turnover of the game — gave the Wildkits a golden opportunity after a 2-yard TD run by Daniel Wolf earned a 21-13 advantage for the visitors. The Kits took over on the South 27, but three plays later junior halfback Quadre Nicholson (22 carries for 86 yards) tried to cut back against the flow of the Hawks inside defense.

For his trouble, Nicholson absorbed a jarring helmet hit on the pigskin and South’s Dylan Harris recovered the loose ball at his own 22 with 4:31 remaining.

South chewed two minutes off the clock before punting, and Evanston’s last-gasp drive died at the ETHS 32 when quarterback Ben Tarpey’s scramble netted just 2 yards on a 4th down try.

Tarpey completed 21-of-39 passes for 250 yards but couldn’t connect on several deep shots against the South secondary. The senior quarterback’s rare turnover — only his third interception of the season — was an errant toss that Wolf returned 41 yards for a score midway through the third period that restored the lead to South at 14-7.

Evanston, after  trailing 7-0 at halftime, had evened the score with a 50-yard drive at the start of the second half. Defensive end Danny White ripped the ball away from a South ball-carrier and recovered himself at midfield, and Tarpey found Axelrood streaking down the middle for the 33-yard TD pass.

Nicholson tallied on a 4-yard burst with 11:37 left in the fourth quarter to cut the deficit to 14-13.

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for Evanston Township High School.

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