By Michael Wojtychiw
When Phillips lost its first three games of the year, many in the area probably thought that this would be a down year for the Wildcats.
Yes, getting blown out by Batavia and Mount Carmel in the first two weeks wasn’t a good sign, but the team rebounded for a respectable 26-12 loss in Week 3 to Morgan Park. This year, Morgan Park and Mount Carmel are undefeated through seven weeks and Batavia is 5-2.
But since then?
It’s been an entirely different story as the team has rattled off four consecutive victories, all Red North conference wins, including a 36-7 blowout of the previously undefeated Lane Tech Champions last Friday at Lane Stadium.
“It’s really been about the buy-in,” Phillips coach Joe Winslow said. At the beginning of the season, we played possibly the hardest schedule in the state. Everyone just assumed we were a terrible team, but we’re young. Eighty-five percent of this team is coming back, I’ve only got something like 12 seniors.
“We’ve got one returning offensive lineman from last year, a senior, so all those guys are sophomores and juniors. The quarterback is a junior playing first-time varsity football, the receivers are all seniors, which is a plus for the quarterback though.”
“People just took us for granted and didn’t think we were the team we have been and will be as long as I’m under the helm. I’m going to always work hard, grind and do what we can do to be successful.”
“After we dropped those first three games, we knew we had to bounce back and play how we’re supposed to play,” Phillips’ athlete Dwayne Williams said.
All year the Champions (6-1, 3-1 Red North) have been using their prolific running attack to slow down opposing teams’ offenses, sometimes coming up with drives of eight or nine minutes, maybe even more.
What Phillips did was do to Lane what Lane had been doing to others. What looked like a three-and-out on the opening possession of the game was wiped out when a Lane defender jumped offsides on fourth-and-4. The Wildcats (4-3, 4-0) then took nearly 11 minutes off the clock, using a combination of its running and passing game to take a 6-0 lead when Dwayne Williams scored on a two-yard run.
“Our captain said ‘let’s do our dummy call and then we’ll get them to jump,’ and we got in a rhythm,” Winslow said. “Our captain called it on special teams, we did it, they jumped and went down and scored.
“After that, the defens was relentless. We knew we had to play slobberknocker football. We had to get downhill every play. Our guys rose up to the challenge. This was our chance to win conference.”
The Champions only ran three plays in the first quarter before Casey Joyce rattled off a 48-yard run on the second quarter’s opening play to give the home team a 7-6 lead.
That, unfortunately for Lane, would be the team’s last lead of the game. The team held Phillips to a three-and-out on the ensuing possession and then drove from the Phillips 47-yardline to the 20 before its drive stalled, forcing a field goal.
That’s when the Wildcats’ special teams unit came up big, not only blocking the 37-yard field goal, but also returning it to the Lane 37. Two plays later the Wildcats were in the end zone again courtesy of a 10-yard pass from quarterback Joseph Winslow Jr. to Achilles Dawson. Phillips’ second consecutive two-point try was unsuccessful, this time intercepted in the endzone.
Both teams took part in some sloppy play at the onset of the third quarter. After a three-and-out on its opening possession, Lane intercepted Winslow after the Wildcats had driven down to the Champions’ 13-yard line. The interception return had Lane in Phillips territory but a fumble on the first play of the possession gave the ball back to the visitors. Two plays later, Winslow was intercepted again.
Following a three-and-out, the Wildcats drove three plays for an 86-yard touchdown drive, capped by a 40-yard score from Wiliams to give the visitors a 20-7 lead. A punt blocked for a safety, as well as a punt return for a touchdown by Ryan McDonald gave the Wildcats a 28-7 lead with just over six minutes remaining.
“From watching film, we knew we had some really aggressive guys on special team,” the Wildcats’ coach said. “We had one guy attack and another shoot the gap to use our speed to get up the field.”
“I took the ball through the middle, saw the opening and just went through it,” Williams said.
Omari McAfee capped the scoring two possessions later on a six-yard scamper and two-point conversion.
Williams had 80 yards rushing for Phillips, while Winslow Jr. threw for 115 yards. The Phillips defense held Lane to under 100 yards off offense.
With the win, the Wildcats clinched at least a share of the conference title, with a chance to win it outright with a win against Clark this weekend. The conference title marks the Wildcats’ ninth consecutive conference title.
“I don’t think these guys feel pressure to keep winning, we shouldn’t,” Williams said. “We’re ballers, that’s what we’re supposed to do.”
“We really believe the only team that can beat Phillips is Phillips,” the coach said. “When you start 0-3, you take nothing for granted. We know that to get to where we want to be and that’s the state playoffs. We have a tradition and we have to live up to it.
“Every day I ask the seniors ‘What’s going to be your legacy?’”