Every Public League football team will take the field this weekend knowing that they may be playing the final game of the season.
A possible teacher’s strike looms on Oct. 11. According to Illinois High School Association rules a team must play at least eight games to qualify for the playoffs. So even the Public League teams that win their conferences could fall short if the strike takes out Week 8 and Week 9.
Taft coach John Tsarouchas talked about the situation with this team before their big game against undefeated Lincoln Park on Thursday at Lane Stadium.
“I was up front and honest with them about it and wanted them to play with the requisite passion for a moment like that,” Tsarouchas said. “They didn’t let me down.”
The Eagles stout defense and the tremendously tough all-around play of senior Abdullah Ahmad led to a 19-16 victory over the Lions.
Taft (6-1, 5-0 Chicago Big Shoulders) was pinned back at its own 2 with three minutes to play leading 19-14. The Eagles decided to take a safety and put faith in the defense to close out the game.
“I’ve got great coaches on this staff, we talk about situations like this all the time,” Tsarouchas said. “[Defensive coordinator Zach Elder] offered it up as a suggestion.”
The defense held. Senior Marcus Lee intercepted a pass with 40 seconds to play that sealed the win. Ahmad, a quarterback and safety, grabbed an interception on the Lions’ second to last drive.
Ahmad was 6-for-14 for 191 yards. He threw touchdown passes of 25 and 83 yards to junior Kevin Gniedziejko (four catches, 152 yards).
“[Ahmad] is without a doubt the heart and soul of our team,” Tsarouchas said. “The kids and coaches call him Mr. Everything. He is a tremendous athlete and an even better competitor. His will to win is amazing and contagious. He makes everyone around him better. You wouldn’t know he was slowed down tonight with a bum knee. He’s our best athlete and he’s our playmaker.”
Ahmad had ten carries for 49 yards. He also had to take over kicking duties temporarily. Taft’s regular kicker, Marek Klimek, didn’t arrive until the fourth quarter.
“I knew I was going to have to kick because the soccer team made it to the final eight,” Ahmad said. “Soccer is Marek’s primary sport.”
Klimek made it back just in time to drive a long kickoff after the Eagles took the safety.
The win puts the Eagles in first place in the Big Shoulders and on pace for a decent seed in the state playoffs. Unless the strike ends the season.
“It is in the back of my mind but I didn’t let it get to me during the game,” Ahmad said. “Between the white lines I’m putting my heart out there and doing whatever I can to help the team win.”
This is Tsarouchas’ first year as head coach. He’s a Taft grad and was an assistant coach for six years. It’s been an ideal start, the Eagles only loss was Week 1 to Mount Carmel.
“These seniors have laid the foundation for all the future success of our program,” Tsarouchas said. “They have invested more in the program than any other class before them.”
Running back CJ Dale did most of the damage for Lincoln Park (6-1, 4-1). The senior had 19 carries for 102 yards and returned a kickoff 70 yards for a score.