Talk about coming back from adversity. Crystal Lake Central has come from behind in four games this season, scoring on the last drive to win.
"It's been a crazy year," coach Mike Fralick said.
The Tigers edged Huntley 27-26 by driving 91 yards in the last two minutes to score with four seconds left. They marched 70 yards to beat Woodstock 21-14. They drove 78 yards in 16 plays in eight minutes and scored with a minute left to beat Woodstock North 21-14. And they nudged Prairie Ridge 7-3, driving 90 yards to score with 22 seconds to play.
Last Saturday, they didn't need to resort to any last-minute theatrics as they trounced Hyde Park 49-7 in the opening round of the Class 6A playoff.
Jordan Wallace set the tone by returning the opening kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown. Matt MacAlpine, in his first full game back after fracturing the fibula in his left leg, scored three touchdowns. Quarterback Kyle Lavand ran for one TD and threw for another as the Tigers built a 42-0 halftime lead.
Crystal Lake Central, which finished behind only Grayslake North in the Fox Valley's Fox Division, will carry an 8-2 record into their second-round game against Grant (8-2) in the second round.
The Tigers have made positive strides since last year's 6-4 finish. "We pulled a tough draw. We lost to Cary-Grove on the road in the first round. But it was a successful season. We did some good things. Our goal always is to qualify for the playoff. And we shared the conference title," Fralick said.
This year's goal is to go beyond the second round, something the school has never done before. In his third year as head coach, with eight starters returning, with depth on both sides of the ball, Fralick felt his team was equipped to meet higher expectations. Especially on defense.
Then the Tigers learned how to spell A-D-V-E-R-S-I-T-Y. Leading rusher MacAlpine, who gained 1,000 yards last year, broke a leg in the season opener. He returned to the lineup for the first time last week but carried only four times for seven yards. He still is rounding into shape. He carried only five times against Hyde Park on Friday.
Without MacAlpine, Fralick implemented a more balanced offense. "We used to be run happy. But I've always believed in balance, pass and run. More than anything else, we have to be more balanced on offense and throw the ball a bit. When we can throw the ball, we are tough to defend," he said.
"I know our defense will be tough. It will come down to executing and being more diverse on offense. I don't know how long it as been since we've had a 1,000-yard passer. But our offense is starting to hit our stride."
The Tigers have a 1,000-yard passer now. He is 6-foot, 175-pound junior Lavand. He transferred from Marian Central in Woodstock after his sophomore year. "I like his poise. He doesn't get rattled. He has an accurate arm and does a nice job of running the offense," Fralick said.
Connor Hines, a 5-foot-8, 205-pound junior fullback, has taken over for MacAlpine. He has rushed for 600 yards in the Tigers' double wing offense. Lavand's chief target is 6-foot-2, 185-pound senior wide receiver Isaiah Mosher.
The 4-4 defense features 6-foot, 195-pound senior linebacker Darwin Stone, Hines at defensive end, 6-foot, 230-pound senior end Kyle Logan and 5-foot-10, 185-pound junior middle linebacker Nathan Talbot.
Fralick, a Woodstock graduate of 1988, played under Bob Bradshaw and Ed Brucker. He was hired as a teacher at Crystal Lake Central and worked his way up the ladder, finally succeeding coach Jon McLaughlin in 2009.
"Coach Brucker was a great influence," he said. "I learned about demeanor. I liked what he did on offense. And I run his 4-4 defense."
Fralick saw the importance of what a well-stocked weight room can do for a team. Until he arrived, weights hadn't been emphasized very much. And the weight room was small and adequate equipment. He renovated the room, moved obsolete equipment out and moved in new sets of dumbbells, power racks and new equipment for dead lifting and squats.
"Now we have one of the top weight rooms in the conference. When I was a freshman, we were at the bottom," Stone said. "I think I'm three times better than I was if the room hadn't been improved. I've put on 60 pounds since my freshman year. I benched 135 pounds; now I bench 275. I squatted 315; now I squat 500. It has made me faster and quicker, from 5.0 seconds for 40 yards to 4.5."
Stone is the leader of Crystal Lake Central's defense, one of five team captains. He hopes to play football in college, maybe at Eastern Illinois, Beloit or Southeast Missouri State. For the time being, however, he is focused on the state playoff and helping his team achieve something historic.
"As a team, we have worked so hard. We really believe we can go far in the playoff. If we stick together, we can make things happen," Stone said. "I feel when we are put in a situation where we have to make things happen and if we don't we lose, that's when we are at our best."
Stone also has rushed for 400 yards as the I-back behind Hines. "When it comes down to it, I'm in for short yardage situations," he said.
But he admits the Tigers are more effective when they are throwing the ball. "We used to be only a running team in the wing T, three yards and a cloud of dust. In the past, we'd pass only 12 to 15 teams in an entire season," he said.
"As freshmen, we were taught to work hard. Not much was expected of the team, we were told, we have to earn it. It was tough to lose MacAlpine. But the team isn't built around one person. It would have been great to have him back. But we'd be in the same spot with him playing all the time."