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The Illini West Chargers closed out the 2014 regular season with a tough test against a talented Tolono Unity Rocket squad that came in ranked #3 in the Illinois Class 3-A poll. The Rockets lived up to their advance billing as an offensive juggernaut, as they beat the host Chargers 56-44 in exciting shoot-out filled with big plays.
Tolono came out of the gates with a burst as they scored quickly on their first two possessions to take an early 14-0 lead with about 5 minutes left in the initial quarter.
Illini West finally responded to the visitor's challenge on their next possession when senior full back Austin Curfman took an inside hand-off, got good blocks from center Kyle Jacoby and guards Avery Fader and Christian Peacock, and then raced 73 yards to the end zone. The conversion run failed, leaving the Chargers trailing 14-6 4:08 left in the first quarter.
Tolono responded with another quick scoring drive to go up 21-6, but the Chargers fought back with a scoring drive of their own. After a nice kick-off return by senior halfback Nolan Ard set the Chargers up around midfield, IW used 11 plays to get down to the Tolono 1-yard line. Curfman blasted in from there and the Chargers now trailed 21-12.
Tolono again proved equal to the challenge as they put another scoring drive together to end the first half. The Rockets went into the intermission on top 28-12.
The Chargers got the ball first in the 2nd half and though they moved it down the field, they were unable to score and cut their deficit. When the Rockets got the football back they made the Chargers pay for their inability to produce points. Tolono drove the field again and put their fifth touchdown on the scoreboard to push their advantage to 35-12.
The Chargers showed they weren't done just yet as they responded to their opponent's fire power with a big play of their own. This time it was IW senior quarterback Braden Bennett hitting a streaking Dustin Waddell down the east sideline for a 79-yard touchdown bomb. The same pair hooked up for a successful conversion pass and the Chargers now trailed 35-20.
Unfortunately the Rockets used a big special teams play to expand their lead again. Tolono would take the ensuing Charger kick-off all the way back to push their advantage back to 42-20 with 2:17 to go in the 3rd quarter.
Illini West proved it still had some fight left in them as they got off the mat to produce another scoring drive. This time the Chargers would go 59 yards in 6 plays to get back in the end zone. The big play on the drive was a 30-yard run by Curfman and Bennett would finish it off with a 9-yard sprint around left end. Ard added a successful conversion run and the Chargers were now down 42-28 as the 3rd period came to a close.
Tolono was undaunted and again responded to the IW challenge. This time they would drive 55-yards for another score following the recovery of an unsuccessful Charger on-side kick attempt. Tolono now led 49-28.
The Chargers proved they would not go down without a fight as they marched 70 yards in 4 plays to find the end zone again. This time the big play was a 56-yard pass from Bennett to Waddell, and then Bennett connected with his other tight end, senior Colton Mellinger, for a 8-yard touchdown pass over the middle. Bennett ran in the successful conversion to cut the Rocket advantage to 49-36.
The Rockets got right back on the board following another recovery of an unsuccessful Charger on-side kick. A 45-yard run two plays after the recovery pushed Tolono's lead out to 56-36.
The Chargers last offensive as salvo came on Tolono's ensuing kick-off. This time senior Jacob Sholl fielded the kick, raced into a mass of players in the middle at about the 25-yard line, and then spilled out of that mass to race down the west sideline for a 96-yard kick-off return for a score. Bennett then hit Mellinger for the 2-point conversion pass to set the game's final score at 56-44.
The Chargers were fairly productive offensively on this night as they gained 399 total yards. Unfortunately, the Rockets would produce a robust 427 total yards of offense themselves.
Of Illini West's total, 255 came on the ground and 144 came via the air. Curfman was IW's top rusher with 167 yards on 20 total attempts. Ard would add 70 yards on 20 carries; with Bennett, Kyle Tanner and Dalton Merry splitting the other 5 carries and 18 yards.
Bennett connected on 4 of his 8 pass attempt for the 144 passing yards. Waddell had the 2 big catches for 135 yards, while Mellinger had the 1 TD grab for 6 yards and Merry had a short catch for 3 yards.
The Charger defense faced a very potent Rocket offense and spent much of their night chasing after Tolono's all-state QB. Unfortunately they were unable to stop him most of the night and could not produce the much needed take-away in the form of a fumble or an interception. The visiting Rockets also did not punt in this game.
Names on the Charger tackle chart included the following and their stop (solos and assists) totals: Austin Curfman (10), Dustin Waddell (5), Dalton Merry (3), Jacob Sholl (7), Kyle Tanner (5), Nate Palmer (4), Kaden Huston (12), Colton Ragain (3), Brandon Stanuch (7), Jensen Corzatt (2), Jeffrey Ufkes (1), Avery Fader (1), Taylor Boston (7), Colton Mellinger (2), Christian Peacock (2), and Nolan Ard (2).
The Chargers finished the regular season at 5-4 overall and found out Saturday night that they had qualified for the IHSA state play-offs in the Class 2-A bracket. Their first round opponent will be the Georgetown-RidgeFarm Buffaloes. The Buffaloes are runners-up in the Vermillion Valley Conference and finished with a regular season mark of 7-2.
Georgetown is located southeast of Campaign near the Indiana border. As the higher seed they will host the first round game on Saturday afternoon starting at 2:00 p.m.