For a 230-pounder, Zac Hare demonstrates surprising fast speed in an open field.
But in a 34-20 win by Stillman Valley over Winnebago in the 3A football playoffs Nov. 16, it was three long runs by Hare that made the difference.
“He’s a phenomenal running back,” Winnebago coach Mark Helm said. “When he knew he had to have it, he kicked it into another gear.”
“A couple of those runs were flat-out will. He refused to go down,” SV coach Mike Lalor said.
Hare gave the Cardinals an early 7-0 lead on a 60-yard run. The senior fullback also closed the game out in style with 44 and 38-touchdowns, the latter after he bowled over standout defensive back Nolan Peterson and ran untouched the rest of the way to the end zone.
“When they got ahead (20-14), I knew I had to make something happen,” Hare said.
In typical running-back gratitude, Hare mentioned his “unbelievable” line, but also gave credit to the team’s strength coach.
“Dan Lundine gives us the power to keep our legs moving,” Hare added. “You’ve got to keep running on your feet.”
In the evenly matched contest between the two BNC powers, Winnebago may have been the more physical team, but the ability of Stillman runners to keep their legs churning surpassed that of their opponent.
“Weight training is what we invest our time in and Dan does a great job for us as strength coach,” Lalor said.
Tristan Elliot, a 205-pound running back, also got into the act by breaking through the line of scrimmage on an 11-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter to give the Cardinals a 21-20 lead. Like Hare’s runs, he appeared to be stopped, but kept the legs moving and eventually found paydirt.
“It was a couple broken tackles for us and basic fundamentals they caused us not to execute,” ‘Bago coach Mark Helm said.
The loss was especially difficult for Helm and his players after beating Stillman Valley in conference play on its way to an undefeated regular-season mark. It also marked the third straight year the Indians lost in the quarterfinals.
“A big difference is this time we didn’t turn the ball over down the stretch, they did,” Lalor said.
With the game tied 14-14 at halftime, Helm took a gamble and opted to kick off against the strong wind so it would be at the Indians’ back for the fourth quarter. Midway through the third quarter, Hare was stuffed on a fourth-down try. Winnebago then marched 58 yards for score, with Peterson leaping over a pair of Cardinal defenders for an 8-yard touchdown.
That made it 20-14 in favor of Winnebago and on the ensuing possession, Hare was stacked of the first-down marker on a fourth-and-3.
“It looked bleak late in the third quarter,” said Lalor, knowing the Indians had a lead and the wind at their back for the final quarter.
However, rather than punt into the wind on the final play of the third quarter, Winnebago went for it on fourth-and-6 from its own 22-yard line. A Ryan Swigart pass fell incomplete and the Cardinals suddenly had a short field.
Five plays later, Elliot put SV ahead with a touchdown and the fourth-quarter wind advantage that
Winnebago hoped for would never materialize. Instead, it was a punt and two interceptions that ended ‘Bago drives.
Stillman Valley (10-2) moves on to the IHSA semifinals for the sixth time under Lalor and will travel to 3A favorite Aurora Christian.
“This season has been unique for us in that we lost in week eight and nine and were able to restart the program,” Lalor said.
The last time AC lost in the playoffs was in 2010 to Stillman Valley, 46-16.
“They’re the elite team in 3A. It will give us a chance to see where we stand,” Lalor said.