STERLING - With his team huddled up near the 20-yard line, Sterling coach Greg King walked up and yelled, "Special teams won that game."
The Golden Warriors made several momentum-changing plays on special teams while La Salle-Peru made several critical special teams mistakes Friday night in Sterling's 23-6 victory in the first round of the IHSA Class 5A playoffs at Roscoe Eades Stadium.
"We always talk about the three phases of the game - offense, defense and special teams," King said. "Coach (Ryan) Vasquez spends a lot of time with those (special teams) guys. He breaks it down, gets them in the right positions. Coach Vasquez does a great job with them."
The most crucial special teams play Friday night game with just a minute left before halftime.
With the Cavaliers facing fourth-and-13 at their own 30-yard line, King decided to go after L-P punter Alec McCleary.
McCleary mishandled the snap as a wave of Golden Warrior defenders descended on him. The ball came loose and Sterling took over at L-P's 21-yard line.
"Our coach asked if we should go for the block and I said, â€˜Go for it.' We did a great job there," King said. "We opened a hole and shot a linebacker. We got some good penetration and we got there and made the play. The guys were opportunistic."
Two players later, Sterling quarterback Drew Neubauer hit Dylan Eilers for a 23-yard touchdown.
Salomon Ocampo booted the extra point through to give Sterling the lead for good. L-P kicker Jake Steele missed the extra point after L-P's lone touchdown.
"There's no question about it, that was huge," L-P coach Joe Sassano said. "We told them they were coming after the punt, too. They executed it. That's huge for them to be able to be in that position."
The Cavaliers had several other key special teams mistakes.
Standing in his own end zone late in the third quarter, McCleary bobbled another snap and was tackled for a safety that gave Sterling a two-score lead at 16-6.
After two mishandled snaps, Sassano put Steele in for the next punt, but the Cavalier place kicker had the same issue, and the Golden Warriors took over first-and-goal at the 6-yard line with 5:54 left in the game.
Three plays later, Chevy Bushaw punched in a 2-yard touchdown to seal the game for the Golden Warriors.
"Three dropped snaps by the punters, that changed the whole field position, and they got that awesome punt at the end that put us back," Sassano said. "We made more mistakes than they did. They executed."
The "awesome punt" came following Sterling's second drive of the third quarter.
From his own 25-yard line, Sterling senior Marcos Rivera booted a low, line drive rugby-style kick that flew over the L-P return men and rolled down to the 9-yard line.
The 66-yard punt pinned the Cavaliers deep and set up the safety.
"Marcos Rivera, for not being a punter until this year, what a big punt that was to get us out of that hole," King said. "They had unfortunate things happen to them on special teams and we took advantage most of the time."
A day at the beach
After last Friday's mud bowl between the Golden Warriors and Cavaliers, Sterling tried to fix the field at Roscoe Eades Stadium by pouring sand in the middle of the field where large pools of water collected.
The field was still soft and slippery, but there was no standing water on the turf for Friday's playoff game.
"It was better than last week. The ball was never really wet. The sand gets in there and makes things slippery, but it was better than water," L-P quarterback Sam Renk said. "We're not going to make excuses. We had a couple new things we were doing. They were working for a while, but Sterling's defense, I would say is the best defense we've faced all year."
Still, the field conditions along with a stiff wind were not ideal conditions for the style of offense the Cavaliers have used under Sassano.
The Cavaliers were held to just 153 total yards with 52 of those coming on their lone touchdown.
"Our bread and butter was finesse and speed and throwing the ball and making people miss," Sassano said. "The conditions (Friday night) just didn't allow it to happen. They knew that and they could pack the box. We had some nice plays. We moved the ball, but we didn't finish it."
Following La Salle-Peru's lone touchdown on a long pass, the Golden Warriors turned up the heat on Renk with constant blitzing.
Although the Cavalier quarterback was sacked a number of times, the senior evaded the rush on several occasions to make big plays.
Facing a third-and-8 from his own 28 on the last play of the first quarter, Renk was being pursued from behind by Sterling linebacker Ryan Billings.
Just as he was about to get leveled, Renk slipped the tackle and rolled from the left side of the field to the right. He threw a pass into the wind to Mike Bergagna for a 16-yard gain.
"Coach just tells us to do whatever we can to make a play," Renk said. "A couple times they came back side. I made them miss and was able to roll out. Some guys made some plays downfield for me. When they flow so hard, sometimes you can catch them on that, but they were able to keep contain enough to slow us down."
Getting after it
The La Salle-Peru defensive line made some key plays Friday against Sterling's run game.
On one series midway through the second quarter, the Cavaliers recorded tackles for loss on three consecutive plays.
Defensive end Brandon Swindler shot through the line on back-to-back plays to stop Bushaw and Corey Judd for losses of 2 and 4 yards, respectively.
His counterpart on the other side, C.J. Robbins, finished off the Golden Warriors by putting Neubauer down for a 5-yard loss on the next play.
A key to the strong line play was switching to a five-man front after using a 4-4 defense last week due to injuries on the line.
"We switched up what we did from a week ago," Sassano said. "The guys up front were coming off the ball hard. I'm sure (Sterling) had the same problem we did on offense in terms of getting traction and getting guys around the edge and out in space where they can run. Our guys played well. Hats off to the defense. They were put in a couple tough situations."
Kevin Chlum can be reached at 223-3200, ext. 138, or at email@example.com.