Junior Maine South running back Paul Preston knew he'd get his opportunities in Saturday night's 8A quarterfinal versus Stevenson.
"Defenses are watching [quarterback] Matt [Alviti] because he's having a great season," Preston said. "So they're not keying on the run."
The 5-foot-4-inch back carried the ball 17 times for 126 yards and two touchdowns, leading the Hawks to a 20-9 win over the host Patriots in Lincolnshire in the Illinois High School Association's football playoffs.
"He's small and quick," Hawks head coach David Inserra said of Preston. "They get their hands on him and he squirts out of it."
In a seesaw match that featured 12 punts, 12 sacks and one safety, Maine South led 13-9 through almost the entire second half.
But with 2:06 remaining, senior Hawks wide receiver Scott Derrick got behind the Stevenson defense and slid across the back of the end zone to catch a 9-yard touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Alviti, putting away the No. 1-seeded Patriots and sending Maine South to a semifinal game against Loyola Academy.
"The offense executed when it had to," Inserra said. "They may not have scored much, but they moved the chains and kept the clock moving."
Alviti had a rough first half, completing only two of seven passes. He followed a three-and-out on the Hawks first possession with a bobbled snap in the end zone that resulted in a safety for Stevenson.
The sophomore got it together after the break and finished 9 of 16 for 106 yards. He threw one touchdown and one interception.
But it was the defense that kept Stevenson from making any headway in the second half. For four straight possessions spanning from the middle of the third quarter to the final minutes of the fourth, the Patriots did not make it beyond their own 34-yard line.
"We put it on our defense's shoulders," Inserra said. "It was a great overall defensive team effort."
The first half was promising for Stevenson. After blocking the extra point after Preston's first touchdown late in the first quarter, senior quarterback Kevin Earl led the Patriots on a 10-play drive that ended with a 1-yard touchdown plunge by junior Nathan Kahn.
Earl went 4 of 4 on the drive for 71 yards. He ended the first half 9 of 14 for 115 yards and an interception. Trailing at the break after Preston's second touchdown, Earl's accuracy plummeted.
At one point in the second half, the quarterback had thrown eight straight incompletions. He finished the game 12 of 29 for 173 yards and two interceptions.
"The offense did everything they could," senior Patriots defensive back Joseph Squaglia said. "They fought hard and some unfortunate things happened."
It was the Hawks' 10th straight win after opening the season 0-2 that left the Maine South faithful up in arms. The season has been a notch below the school's 2008 and 2009 campaigns, two 14-0 seasons that included a pair of Central Suburban League South championships and back-to-back Class 8A state titles.
"Our fans started leaving on us," senior defensive tackle Conor Cooney said. "We got them back, though, so that's all that matters."
Preston said, "It's awesome. Everything's clicking. It's a great feeling."
It's a feeling Inserra probably won't be feeling for long. Next week's matchup with the Ramblers is already on his mind.
"They know us; we know them," he said. "That's going to be a tough one to call."