By Matt Nestor
In so many ways, the Harlem Huskies couldn’t have asked for their second-round IHSA Class 7A game against second seed St. Rita to go much better.
Harlem (8-3) controlled the clock, ran 10 more plays than the Mustangs, and moved the ball to the tune of 336 yards against a much bigger team.
Unfortunately for the Huskies, their first three drives, all of which ended in St. Rita territory, ended in fumbles. The Mustangs converted two of those into 10 points on their way to a 38-21 victory.
“We told the guys that if we could avoid beating ourselves, that we would probably be in this thing,” Harlem Head Coach Jim Morrow said. “We felt like we were competitive and if we could just make a few plays along the way, we could win. But we came out, and we didn’t take care of the ball very well.”
St. Rita opened the game quickly and helped put the Huskies on their heels. After a penalty on the opening kickoff, the Mustangs started at the Harlem 45.
Four plays later, all runs by star running back Jahwon Akui, the Mustangs took a 7-0 lead.
St. Rita turned the first Harlem fumble into a field goal and a 10-0 lead. Then, following the second Huskies fumble, Akui racked up 58 yards and scored his second touchdown, opening up a 17-0 lead for St. Rita.
“We got off to a slow start,” Harlem running back Keith Purifoy said. “They got us on our heels, and we got ourselves into a hole, and it was hard to get ourselves out of it.”
After holding St. Rita to a punt after another fumble, this time 3 yards from the endzone, Harlem was finally able to finish a drive.
A good punt return by Matt Gagnon set Harlem up at the Mustangs’ 22. Four plays later, quarterback Brandon Rogers barreled his way in from 9 yards out to cut the lead back to 10.
St. Rita was able to answer, however, with Akui picking up another 36 yards and scoring his third touchdown to get the lead back to 17 at the half.
“We had to have answers, and we had to run the football,” St. Rita Head Coach Todd Kuska said. “To get that touchdown was big because they had us reeling a little bit there, and we were back on our heels. We knew they were getting the ball back to start the second half. We didn’t want to keep it any closer than we had to.”
Following a fourth touchdown for Akui, this time from 33 yards out, Harlem’s Rob Hyde went in from 1 yard out to make the score 31-14 with 16 minutes left in the game.
But from there out, St. Rita finally stalled the Harlem offense. Akui added his fifth touchdown of the night in the fourth quarter, scoring from 26 yards out, his last of a total of 227 yards on the night.
“You could see the humongous holes they were running the ball through,” Morrow said of St. Rita’s star running back. “We put nine in the box. We can’t really do much more than that. He’s so small behind a big line, it’s hard to find him back there.”
Kevin Witcik scored from 1 yard out to finish the scoring.
Rogers led the Huskies, as he did for much of the season. The senior star threw for 201 yards and ran for another 44 yards, including the touchdown. Fellow senior Purifoy ran for 62 yards and caught seven passes for 64 yards.
Despite the loss, it was still a strong finish for the Huskies. They became the fifth team in school history to advance past the first round of the playoffs. They also put a definite scare into one of the favorites to win the Class 7A title.
“We played our hearts out, and that’s all we can ask for,” Purifoy said. “We look back at the season and feel like we accomplished a lot of things people didn’t give us credit for.”
From the Nov. 10-16, 2010 issue