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Disabato: Evergreen Park on historic run

Evergreen Park's Jacquet McClend(21). | Joel Lerner~Sun-Times Media

Evergreen Park's Jacquet McClendon (21). | Joel Lerner~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 19, 2012 11:46AM



After absorbing a 35-0 shellacking at the hands of rival Richards in Week 3 of the regular season, Evergreen Park’s season could have gone one of two ways: down the drain or refocused on reaching Champaign.

With a spot in the Class 4A semifinals, it’s quite obvious Evergreen Park responded to that ugly loss in the way every coach wants.

“It does say a lot about the players,” Evergreen Park coach Dan Hartman said. “We were obviously concerned how the kids would respond to a tough loss like that. ... But we told them they had the talent to bounce back, get to six wins and into the playoffs. They had to respond in a positive way.”

The Mustangs (9-3) won six games during the regular season — a fine accomplishment. But the biggest thrills have been saved for the playoffs, where they’ve knocked off No. 2 North Chicago, 23-7, No. 6 Richmond-Burton, 34-27, and No. 5 Brooks, 37-14, during a historic 4A run.

Next up is No. 1 Alleman (11-1) and Evergreen Park’s first-ever state semifinal, at 6 p.m. Saturday. With a win, Champaign and a title game would be the next stop.

“It’s been crazy,” Hartman said. “I’m getting emails from alumni wishing us luck. The support has been great.”

Despite its status as a No. 7 seed, folks, I would not refer to Evergreen Park as Cinderella. By now, Cinderella teams not only have lost their slippers, they’ve turned in their uniforms. The quarterfinals generally expose pretenders. The good fortune that existed during the first two rounds, like sand in an hour glass, usually runs out.

The Mustangs have some overachievers on their roster — no different than any team. But they also boast All-Area and Division I college talent. Quarterback Brandon White has piled up more than 2,500 yards of total offense, and can hurt opponents with his arm or his legs. That was never more obvious than during Saturday’s win over Brooks, when he rushed for 216 yards, passed for 162 and totaled four touchdowns.

“He’s been playing his best ball during the playoffs,” Hartman said. “He’s playing within the scheme and taking advantage of opportunities. He’s basically taking what the defense gives him and not trying to do too much.”

It helps having a D-I stud in wide receiver Jacquet McClendon. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound junior is being recruited by Northwestern, Vanderbilt and Indiana, schools that require brains as well as brawn from players.

Fellow receivers Mike Reuter, Jonathan Karstrand and Paul Romano, along with running backs T.J. Eames and Keyshawn Carpenter, have also stepped up.

Additionally, there’s the two-way efforts of multiple players, led by Kyle Venhuizen. The senior, who scored a 32 on the ACT and is being recruited by Ivy League schools, plays on the O-line an D-line.

This team is a legitimate contender, not a pretender.

“It’s a great group of kids who believe in the program,” Hartman said.

The playoff push has benefitted from the Mustangs’ typical regular-season grind, when they mostly face larger schools. With an enrollment of 838, Evergreen Park was the sixth-largest 4A qualifier and is the biggest school still playing.

“During the regular season, we’re always the smaller team strength- and size-wise,” Hartman said. “But playing Richards, Eisenhower and Shepard prepares us for the playoffs. Once we get to the playoffs, all the teams are relatively the same size as us. The kids know they can compete. It’s a confidence thing.”

Saturday’s opponent, Alleman (11-1), has additional motivation. Evergreen Park knocked Alleman out of the playoffs last season by with a 19-18 second-round decision.

It’s a scenario the Mustangs can relate to. Richmond-Burton beat Evergreen Park in the quarterfinals last year. When the two teams met this year in the second round, the Mustangs returned the favor.

“We’ve had that discussion,” Hartman said. “How we felt against Richmond-Burton is how Alleman will be coming out against us. We’ll see how we respond.”

These are magical days at Evergreen Park. Soon after Saturday’s game, the field’s natural grass surface will be replaced with FieldTurf. Hartman hopes it’s another reason local families who generally send their children to neighboring private schools will reconsider the hometown public school.

“It’s going to help level the playing field,” Hartman said. “You can come to Evergreen Park, receive a great education and get an opportunity to play for a state championship, just like at those schools. Except you can save $40,000.”



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