MARION — Marion head coach Kerry Martin wanted his team to play with a little more emotion this week. On Saturday afternoon in their Class 5A playoff opener, the Wildcats responded.
Marion earned a fourth-down stop on the first series of the game, responded with a 41-yard scoring drive and never trailed on the way to a 29-12 win over the visiting Rich East Rockets. Marion improved to 7-3 with the win. Rich East ended its season 6-4.
"We told the kids all week that the first series could very well set the tempo for the game," said Martin. "We also said offensively we need to put points on the board and make them play catch up. And we did both of those things."
The Wildcats kicked off to start the game, and took advantage of a bold move by the Rockets who started at their own 32 and tried to get a first down on fourth and two from their own 40. But the Wildcats held Rockets quarterback Jeremy Lee to just a yard and took possession of the ball.
Five plays later, after a 29-yard pass from Boston Ziegler to Frankie Horner put the ball at the Rockets 1, Drake Gravatt bowled in to give the Wildcats a 6-0 lead with 8:21 left in the opening period.
And even after the Rockets scored on their next possession, an 18-yard pass from Lee to Maurice Harris, Dylan Kinell blocked the extra point to keep the score at 6-6.
"So many kids made so many plays," Martin said. "I can name anybody. It was an absolute team effort. For me, it's the first time the offense, the defense, the special teams played well -- all three phases -- against a really good football team."
Less than 90 seconds after the Rockets tied the game, Marion regained the lead for good, using a big play to do so. After Venson Newsom returned the ensuring kickoff to the Wildcat 40, Marion went 60 yards in six plays. The big play again involved Newsom, this time catching a wide-open pass from Zielger at the Rich East 20 and cruising into the end zone for a 44-yard touchdown strike. Marion led 14-6 after the two-point conversion run by Ziegler.
Rich East had a chance to tie the game with 55 seconds left in the half when Lee scored on a 7-yard run. By Jonathan Clarida stopped Harris on the conversion run and the Wildcats led 14-12 at intermission.
Marion took the opening possession of the second half to the end zone to stretch its lead to 21-12. Ziegler capped an 11-play, 64 yard drive with a 2-yard run at the 7:37 mark of third period.
The Wildcats then succeeded in doing what Martin felt Rich East would do to his team, keeping the Rockets offense off the field. The Rockets had just 19 offensive plays in the second half, 10 on their first drive which resulted in a punt. Rich East managed just 42 yards after the intermission on only three possessions.
Marion iced the game in the fourth quarter. After punting the Rockets back to the 20, Gravatt made one of the defensive plays of the game by breaking up a quick pass over the middle that if caught would have been a long touchdown. That forced a turnover on downs, and the Wildcats took advantage by taking three plays to cover the 17 yards. Gravatt put the icing on the cake with a 5-yard touchdown run and the Wildcats led 29-12.
Kinell picked off Lee on the next Rockets possession and the Wildcats ran out the clock.
Rich East had 241 yards in total offense for the game, 192 on the ground. But the Rockets had just 41 after the break. Armani Brown led Rich East with 72 rushing yards while Lee had 49 yards and a touchdown and Harris 42. Lee was 5-for-10 in the air for 49 yards including the scoring strike to Harris who caught two passes for 25 yards.
Marion had just 79 yards rushing, led by Gravatt with 35 yards and two touchdowns and Ziegler with 23 yards and a score. Zielger was 8-for-14 in the air for 134 yards and a touchdown. Along with Newsom's touchdown catch, Jake Welch caught three passes for 35 yards, Horner had one catch for 29.
Marion will play Joliet Catholic Academy in the second round in Joliet next Saturday. The Hilltoppers beat Metamora 49-20 Saturday night to improve to 6-4.