FOOTBALL: Coal City’s season ends with late loss in quarterfinals
COAL CITY — As the postseason lingers on, the margins for error become tighter and games are decided by fewer and fewer inches.
And for Coal City, its season may have ended by less than that.
After more than 46 minutes of the most physical and hard-fought football imaginable on a high school gridiron, it was a 27-yard field goal by Richmond-Burton’s Nicholas Legnaioli with just 1:40 on the clock to end the Coalers’ season by a 17-14 score.
The Coalers ended their season in the IHSA Class 4A Quarterfinals with a 10-2 record.
“In these games, you just have to give credit to the other team,” Coal City coach Dan Hutchings said. “They outplayed us.”
In a clash of two teams who both allowed less than a touchdown per game on average, it was evident from the opening drive that defense, special teams and field position would determine Saturday’s victor.
After the Coalers went three-and-out on the opening possession, the Rockets needed to drive just 45 yards to draw first blood, with a Legnaioli one-yard touchdown run making it 7-0.
But the Coalers hit right back, thanks to the speediest player on either team, receiver Asa Cooper. Cooper raced past three Rockets on a third-and-eight from the Richmond-Burton 27-yard line and caught a pass from Payton Hutchings that was thrown right on the money to tie it back at 7-7.
The Rockets took just two minutes to regain their lead. After a kickoff return set them up at the Coal City 28-yard line, Mike Kaufman’s three-yard touchdown run put the Rockets back up 14-7.
That is what the halftime score looked like it would be until the Coalers made the first game-changing defensive play of the afternoon. With a minute left in the half, Jack Bunton picked off Jacob Huber’s pass and returned it deep into Rockets territory.
Two plays later, Payton Hutchings found Cooper nearly in the same spot of the endzone for the duo’s second touchdown connection of the quarter. Cooper finished the game with 57 yards and the two touchdowns on four catches.
Dan Hutchings said that he would have liked to utilize Cooper’s athleticism more in a game where it would be highlighted even more by the slow, physical pace, but recent weather had an affect on that.
″(Cooper’s speed) would be (an advantage), but the field conditions were chopped up,” Dan Hutchings said. “It was frozen at 7 a.m. and then when it thawed out, just got slick.”
After the two teams traded a pair of offensive blows, the second half became a battle of defense, special teams, and again, field position.
With six minutes left in the game, the Coalers took over at their own 15-yard line after seizing momentum with a three-and-out. But, the Coalers were forced to punt it right back after two runs that lost a total of two yards and an incomplete pass.
Caleb Knutson’s punt, which was into the wind, traveled 16 yards and allowed the Rockets to set up shot just inside the Coalers’ 40-yard line. After driving inside the 10-yard line, a pair of false starts forced the Rockets to settle for the 27-yard field goal, one that was so close to the right upright that the ball might as well have kissed it on its way past the yellow pole.
“When you have to go (85 yards) and then you punt it back into the wind, it’s a tough thing,” Hutchings said. “Defense and special teams are the name of the game and we played great D.
“You sit there and give up 17 (points), you hope you can score more than 14.”
But it just wasn’t in the cards for the Coalers. On the first play of the ensuing drive, Payton Hutchings was picked off by Payton Minzey, the game fittingly ending with a defensive play.
Dan Hutchings has the unique perspective of not only coaching his football players, but also serving as their athletic director during the rest of the season. He said he’s excited to see his players excel in other sports, although it was tough to watch his seniors step off the gridiron for the final time.
“I’m sad to see this end, but I love watching these kids compete in wrestling, basketball, baseball, track,” Dan Hutchings said. “They’re competitors and they know what to do.
“The tough part is saying bye to these seniors.”
Payton Hutchings was 10-of-22 passing for 122 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Connor Skubic had 15 carries for 31 yards and two receptions for 21 yards. Daniel Jezik had nine carries for 25 yards. Gio Ferrera had two catches for 23 yards. Austin Pullara had two catches for 21 yards and two tackles for loss.