ROCKTON—Hononegah’s Indians found themselves in a rare position in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s IHSA Class 7A playoff game with Pekin.

They were trailing.

After squandering a 17-point lead, Hononegah trailed 28-24 and fans at Kelsey Field had to be thinking that maybe “The Curse” was for real.

Fortunately, the seventh-ranked Indians weren’t buying it. They put together an impressive go-ahead drive and then a terrific defensive stand to pull out a 31-28 victory.

“I don’t think it was anything we did as coaches,” head coach Brian Zimmerman said. “The kids took control out there on the field. Their mindset is that they haven’t lost all season and they believe they shouldn’t lose. They don’t feel down or get down on each other. It’s amazing the resiliency these guys have.”

Hononegah (11-0) snapped its 0-for-9 playoff streak—the second-round “curse”—and reached the third round for the first time in 25 years. Hononegah travels to face Chicago St. Rita (9-2) at 3 p.m. this Saturday.

“It’s going to be a bit different,” Zimmerman said. “It probably won’t be sunny, it will be in the 40s and we’re going to be playing on turf. But we’ll take it.”

The Indians held the Dragons (8-3) to negative yardage on their first four possessions as they built a 17-0 lead. Then Pekin junior quarterback Scotty Jordan went to work, connecting with Levi Burke on a 63-yard TD pass to cut the Indians’ lead to 17-7.

Jordan went on to complete 8-of-18 passes for 180 yards. In the fourth quarter, he found a wide open Kanye Taylor for a 92-yard score that put the Dragons in front, 28-24.

The Indians, who had seemingly hit the wall and gained just three first downs in their previous five possessions, regrouped. They drove 71 yards on 10 plays—almost exclusively runs by senior Stuart Hale—as the offensive line reasserted itself. Hale punched it into the end zone from 4 yards out and Bryce Goodwine booted the PAT for a 31-28 lead.

“You’d like every game to be an easy win, but they’re not,” junior offensive lineman Jacob Klink said. “We really had to push to get that one in. The whole series was a battle. But we never got our heads down and we won this one for Coach Trice (referring to long-time line coach Andy Trice, who is recovering from a bout with cancer).”

The defense still had to do its thing. Taking over at its 22, Pekin drove to the Hononegah 44, but faced a fourth-and-7. Rushing hard off the edge, linebacker Dylan Seymour sacked Jordan—his team’s ninth tackle for loss with a little over 3 minutes left.

“We knew it was ours after that sack,” said linebacker Dylan Sayles, who had scored the Indians’ first TD on a 20-yard pick-6. “We’re gaining confidence each week. We knew all about the second-round curse, but we couldn’t think about that. We had to play our game. I think this will give us a lot of confidence going into next week.”

The Indians offense took over and ran out the clock with a pair of first downs, including a fourth-and-4 run Hale converted with extra effort. He finished with 129 yards on 25 carries.

“Stuart is magical sometimes,” Zimmerman said. “He gets the ball and he pauses for a second. It’s like he’s looking where he’s going to go. All of a sudden he takes off and picks up six yards. There were several times he got corralled early, but still picked up yardage. For two weeks we’ve put a lot of weight on his back.”

Sayles’ fifth career pick-6 came just 48 seconds into the game. After Brigham Molander forced a fumble on a sack, Pekin recovered at its 2, but that led to terrific field position for the Indians and a 29-yard field goal by Givens. They made it 17-0 as Isaac Whisenand had a big 17-yard run and then hit Sayles with a 34-yard TD pass.

After Jordan’s TD pass cut it to 17-7, the Indians went 88 yards with Hale providing a 45-yard run and catching a 24-yard TD pass from Whisenand for a 24-7 lead.

Pekin cut it to 24-14 just before halftime on Jordan’s 1-yard sneak to cap a 51-yard march.

Pekin’s Kanye Tyler picked off a Whisenand pass and returned it to the Hononegah 12, setting up an 11-yard TD pass from Jordan to Levi Burke to make it 24-21 in the third quarter.

Whisenand was also picked off on the Indians’ next possession, by Cameron Hodgson, but that threat when the defense stiffened on a fourth down-and-2 at the Hononegah 33. The Indians took over on downs heading into the fourth quarter.

“Our defense saved us this week,” Klink said. “That’s kind of been the theme all season. They had our backs and we had their backs last week. We’re working together to get through this.”

• NOTES: Hononegah has 11 victories for just the second time in school history, second only to its 12-1 state semifinal team in 1996. The Class 4A state runnerup team in 1985 was 10-4. ...Sayles interception was Hononegah’s 20th of the season, but the team’s only takeaway in the game.

• SATURDAY’S BOXSCORE:

HONONEGAH 31, PEKIN 28.

Pekin…………….. 0 14 7 7—28

Hononegah………17 7 0 7—31

SCORING SUMMARY: Hono—D. Sayles, 20, interception return (Goodwine kick). Hono—Goodwine, FG, 29 yards. Hono—D. Sayles, 34, pass from Whisenand (Goodwine kick). P—Burke, 63, pass from Jordan (Hansen kick). Hono—Hale, 24, pass from Whisenand (Goodwine kick). P—Jordan, 1, run (Hansen kick). P—Burke, 11, pass from Jordan (Hansen kick). P—Tyler, 92, pass from Jordan (Hansen kick). H—Hale, 4, run (Goodwine kick).

TEAM STATS: First downs—P 11, Hono 16. Rushing—P 33-80, Hono 40-158. Passing—P 192, Hono 96. Passes—P 19-9-1, Hono 17-8-2. Fumbles—P 1-0, Hono 0-0. Punting—P 5-23.2, Hono 5-30.0. Penalties—P 5-45, Hono 4-35.

INDIVIDUAL LEADERS: Rushing—P, Tyler 12-44, Sprecher 10-40. Hono, Hale 25-129, Whisenand 10-20. Passing—P, Jordan 18-8-1, 180; Frainer 1-1-0, 12. Hono, Whisenand 17-8-2, 96. Receiving—P, Burke 5-94, Tyler 1-92, Frainer 3-6. Hono, D. Sayles 4-64, Hale 1-24, Goodwine 2-7.

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