Stone leads Crystal Lake Central's comeback

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Stone leads Crystal Lake Central's comeback

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."

Wintrust Athlete of the Week: Jack Aho

Wintrust Athlete of the Week: Jack Aho

Jack Aho is the reigning state champion in Class 2A and recently shattered a course record at Warren High School. 

But beyond posting some of the area's fastest times, cross country is also a family affair for Aho.

See why he was named this week's Wintrust Athlete of the Week in the video above.

Football takes a back seat as Griffins honor PFC Aaron Toppen on Salute to Troops night

Football takes a back seat as Griffins honor PFC Aaron Toppen on Salute to Troops night

“Football is life. Until it’s not.”

That message Lincoln-Way East head coach Rob Zvonar relayed to his team in the week leading up to the Griffins’ Week 5 tilt against Thornton was an important one. For the 115 student-athletes who make up a team with legitimate state-title aspirations, high school football can feel like a life-and-death situation. Until it’s not.

Private First Class Aaron Toppen, a 2013 Lincoln-Way East graduate, was 19 when he was killed in Afghanistan two years ago. And on that June 9, 2014, a country lost a hero, a family lost a son, a brother and an uncle, and a community lost a friend who had walked through the halls of Lincoln-Way East High School and drove his famous pick-up truck through town just a year earlier.

So when the Griffins held their annual Salute the Troops night last Friday night, before blowing out the Wildcats 42-6, Aaron’s surviving family was an easy choice to join the team as honorary captains. Aaron’s mother, two sisters, uncle, grandmother and niece were recognized before the game, all in loving memory of a fellow Griffin graduate who gave the ultimate sacrifice to his country.

“Aaron’s passing was a big deal to our community,” athletic director Mark Vander Kooi said. “And we wanted to embrace his family and let them know that we cared about them, loved them and appreciated the sacrifice they made.”

When Lincoln-Way East principal Dr. Sharon Michalak contacted Aaron’s sister, Amy, about honoring her brother last week’s football game, the family jumped at the opportunity. Aaron and his family had been honored at a game in 2014, just months after Aaron’s death. And with the Griffins hosting “Salute to Troops” night, and that coinciding with the annual 5k run held in Aaron’s name the following day, the family accepted the invitation with open arms.

“It’s just amazing. The support never stops, and to hear that they want to keep Aaron’s name alive and honor him, it just really makes us feel wonderful,” Aaron’s mother, Pam, said. “It’s a way we’re getting through it, is through the support of everybody.

Many of the Griffins know the Toppen family – Amy and Amanda are also graduates – but for those unfamiliar with Aaron’s story – like the student-athletes who transferred from North – head coach Rob Zvonar made it a point to relay that message during practice week. Before the team dressed Friday night, all 115 players watched a pair of video tributes to Toppen in one of the school’s classrooms.

“It’s awesome playing in his honor,” senior Sam Diehl said. “We understand football’s just a game and that (Aaron) made the ultimate sacrifice, giving his life for our country, that we have more to give than just football to our community, that there are people out there we need to be more thankful of.”

Once the pregame festivities ended the Griffins put on a worthy performance. They scored touchdowns on their first six drives of the game into the third quarter. Jake Arthur threw three more touchdown passes, wide receiver Nick Zelenika topped 100 yards and the Griffins’ offense averaged better than 4.5 yards per carry.

Devin O’Rourke tallied five tackles for loss and two more sacks – he has five in the last two weeks – and the Griffins defense limited the Wildcats to only a late touchdown in the final minute. The Griffins first team defense has allowed zero points in its last six quarters and appears to be putting its early-season struggles behind them.

But the night belonged to the Toppen family and Aaron’s legacy. The night coincided with homecoming weekend, and it brought back more than a handful of Aaron’s old classmates. One of them, current Illinois offensive lineman Nick Allegretti, spoke highly of Aaron and the impact he left on the school and community.

“I always enjoyed talking in class sitting with him,” he said. “Any person that’s going to go out and fight for our country and fight for our freedom, I have unlimited respect for. So obviously it’s a sad thing to remember, but I think it’s awesome seeing the support we have out here, from the community to the school to the administration.”

The following day each member of the Griffins and the coaching staff traveled to Mokena to participate in the third annual Our Fallen Hero 5k run in Aaron’s memory. Zvonar and the seniors joked about the aches and pains they’d feel running the 3.1 miles less than 12 hours after a football game, but they also understood the importance of showing up, honoring a fellow Griffin and raising money for the Pat Tillman Foundation.

“We’re able to run if we have to, walk if we have to, do what we have to to get it done,” running back Nigel Muhammad said. “Because it’s not about us.”

Added the 285-pound Diehl: “We’re more than happy to run the 3.1 miles. Even us offensive linemen don’t mind.”

More than 600 people were expected to show up for the fundraiser run, which had raised nearly $50,000 in its first two years.

“Aaron would probably say, ‘Mom I don’t like attention, what’s going on here?’ Because he was never that type,” Pam said. “But such a tragedy has brought together a community, and like Amanda said we’re blessed to be a part of this community…We just love seeing everybody.”

Football is life. Until it’s not.

It would have been enough for Zvonar and the coaching staff to speak about who Aaron Toppen was, and the impact he left on a school, a community and a country. The Toppen family could have simply been honored at halftime. Attending the 5k could have been optional for the team to attend.

Instead, football took a back seat for a night in Frankfort. The Toppens were gracious enough to be placed front-and-center to remember a young man who gave his life to protect the freedoms of each one of the thousands in attendance that evening.

“You think back to Aaron Toppen, who a few years ago was walking the hallways of this school and in the same classroom as these guys, and going to the same homecoming dance, and this was just a little bit ago,” Zvonar said. “A young man that’s barely older than these guys and then he goes off and serves his country and fights for the rights for all of us, and pays the ultimate sacrifice. You certainly don’t let that go by unnoticed.

“You want to really make sure that that’s pointed out, that freedom doesn’t come free. And these young men have an opportunity to come out and play this great game tonight. And all these things they’re allowed to do because of the bravery of young men like Aaron Toppen. One of those situations where I know as long as Coach Vander Kooi and myself are here we’ll do everything we can to stop and talk about him.”