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Vernon Hills beats Grant to become playoff eligible

VERNON HILLS — After a key 20-6 North Suburban Prairie win over Grant on Saturday, Vernon Hills’ football team will need to wait a little longer to learn its fate.

With the victory, the Cougars (5-3, 4-2) clinched the program’s first winning season since 2011, and are also playoff eligible.

That playoff fate, however, remains in limbo. Unless the Cougars beat Lake Zurich in Week 9 to automatically qualify for the postseason with six wins, they’ll need to rely on their playoff point total to advance beyond the regular season for the first time since 2010.

Vernon Hills finished play Saturday with 33 playoff points, which is calculated by adding the combined wins of opponents.

“We had a great week of practices before beating Grant,” Vernon Hills senior wide receiver Robby Nardini said. “Whatever happens, we’ve put ourselves in a really good position and accomplished a big goal of ours.”

Just a few short weeks ago, the Cougars were torched by 60 points (73-13) in a division game against Lakes. It was a huge turning point — and one that seemed to galvanize the team.

“We could’ve responded several ways after that loss,” Vernon Hills coach Bill Bellecomo said. “But our kids took it personal.”

Rather than sulking, the Cougars have responded with back-to-back road victories. Senior and third-year varsity defensive lineman Steven Didier, who recovered a fumble against Grant, has been impressed by his teammates’ resilience.

“The hard work every guy on our roster has put in to help turn things around has been an amazing thing to watch,” Didier said. “Whether we make the playoffs or not, becoming playoff eligible is a big deal to our community and school. We’re thrilled.”

Offensive linemen Max Donato (LT), Joe Blitstein (LG), Chris Park (C), Jason Tellez (RG) and Jake Stinson (RT) — all seniors— have provided stellar pass protection for starting quarterback Connor McNamara. McNamara completed 18 of his 28 passes for 211 yards against Grant and also carried the ball 11 times for 74 yards and a touchdown.

“Our fans keep coming out to support us no matter what, and everyone has kept a positive outlook and attitude,” McNamara said. “That optimism has been huge.”

The Cougars are even having a little fun on offense during games, as evidenced by Kyle Hull’s 13-yard halfback pass to Nardini for a second-quarter TD against Grant. It wound up being the game-winning score.

“My assistant coaches [Corey Atwell and Jason Newberger] asked me if they could run that play,” Bellecomo said with a laugh. “They promised me [Nardini] would be wide open in the end zone, and he was. At first, I was a little bit nervous about calling that play. I’m glad it worked out.”

Though Grant (2-6, 2-3) only scored six points and will miss the postseason, Bulldogs senior running back Tim Hollins (21 carries, 117 yards) gave Vernon Hills all it could handle. Five of his carries went for double-digit yardage, and he accounted for more than half his team’s 222 total yards.

Still, the Vernon Hills defense refused to break.

“This was probably one of our most complete victories of the season,” Bellecomo said. “On both sides of the ball, everyone was a factor at one point or another. That’s a great sign headed into Week 9. Now we have to find a way to maintain that momentum.”