Evergreen Park playoff run tough on turf

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Because of changes on the field, Evergreen Park will have to wait a while longer for changes to its field.

A $1.2 million FieldTurf artificial surface is coming to Evergreen Park’s football stadium, as soon as the team is done using it. The Mustangs (8-3) are hosting Brooks (8-2) at 6 p.m. Saturday in a Class 4A quarterfinal, and with a win would host a semi the following weekend against the winner of the Alleman/Coal City quarter.

“We will start the excavation part as soon as the season is over,” Evergreen Park athletic director Jim Soldan said Thursday. “If we win, we’ll have a game next week, and then we’d have to practice. Honestly (the wait) could be up until the state championship — that’s what we’re hoping for.”

Brooks, the Chicago Public League’s Illini Heartland champs, is a significant hurdle. The Eagles’ losses came to a pair of schools with roughly double their enrollment — in Week 1 to Kaneland, a No. 1 seed in Class 5A, and in Week 3 to Rock Island, a No. 3 in 6A — by a combined six points.

But then, the Mustangs cleared a significant hurdle in the second round by topping Richmond-Burton, which ousted them in the 2011 4A quarters. And they did so in telling fashion.

Evergreen Park trailed at the half 19-7, a deficit which looked even bigger because of the way Richmond-Burton dominated the first two quarters, rolling up 162 yards rushing to 28 for the Mustangs.

Particularly stymied was Mustangs quarterback Brandon White, who had only 18 yards on seven carries and threw two interceptions while completing just 6-of-14 first-half passes. Too, star wideout Jacquet McClendon had just two catches, was the target on one of the picks, and fumbled a kick return to lead to a Richmond-Burton score.

“We had a talk at the half with those two guys,” coach Dan Hartman said. “We’ve had times this year, when we’ve had plays go bad, they’ve kind of folded.”

The duo combined for 186 yards worth of scoring plays in the second half, White also adding a 29-yard touchdown pass to Jonathan Karstrand. That sort of rapid growth mirrors Evergreen Park’s ascent under Hartman.

In 56 seasons of football before Hartman arrived from Crown Point (Ind.) High School, Evergreen Park reached the playoffs a total of eight times — only one of those in the previous nine seasons — and the quarterfinals just once.

Hartman has now had the Mustangs in two straight quarterfinal games — with significantly different teams.

“Last year, we had the two outstanding running backs,” Hartman said of Victor Baker and Jared Jackson. “This year, we’re a lot more balanced. We can score and move the ball a lot of different ways.”

Change and growth should remain constant next year. White will be gone, but Hartman will augment his returnees with players from a sophomore team that went 8-1, losing only to Richards.

And the FieldTurf should be a boon.

Soldan said the project is, first, one of necessity. The baseball and softball outfields serve as the football practice field, and two soccer programs use the football field.

“We are completely land-locked, and we continually have to repair our football field,” he said.

Second, the new turf, and the football team’s recent track record, might help woo the kinds of players from the area who have traditionally gravitated toward nearby private schools.

“Our biggest competition is Brother Rice,” Soldan said. “They’ve had a couple of key players the last couple of years who we would have loved to have had here. Maybe if those kids see they can regularly compete for a state championship here, that will change a few minds.”

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