The Maine South Redhawks had their backs against the wall entering the locker room. A gritty Conant team matched every punch, forcing a 7-7 halftime score.
Adversity is no stranger to Maine South. Just a sophomore two years ago, Matthew Alviti was forced into the starting quarterback role. He led his team to 12 straight victories and a state championship.
Coach Dave Inserra has won five state titles in his coaching career, and is vying for a sixth this season. In the second half of Saturday's game, Maine South battled back like champions.
"We've been in this position," Inserra said. "We're not going to panic."
It was Alviti's job to lead his team, just as he has so many times in his decorated high school career.
An option run of more than 30 yards sent the quarterback in for a score, giving the Redhawks a lead. After each team traded touchdowns, Maine South needed to secure the victory.
Alviti connected with receiver George Sajenko on a 37-yard strike, thrown just beyond the defender's reach. The Maine South defense helped secure a 27-13 victory.
Alviti started slowly, completing just one of his first six passes. He turned it around, hitting on eight of his next nine strikes. In total, he compiled 110 passing yards and 124 yards on the ground.
The four-star quarterback prospect, headed to Northwestern, played with the poise of a winner.
"It helps tremendously," said Alviti, asked about playoff experience. "With confidence, not only knowing what our offense can do,but what our defense can do. We just have to come out here and play Maine South football."
As one of Illinois' most successful high school programs, Maine South gets every opponent's best challenge. The Redhawks have a target on their backs each game.
In the second round of the 2011 playoffs, the three-time defending champions were dethroned, upset 24-22 by Stevenson High School. That loss was on the Redhawks' minds on Saturday, as they looked to surpass the second round.
A rematch with Stevenson was possible for the third round, but a Glenbard North upset of the Patriots erased those plans.
"We'll take whoever we're playing," Inserra said, dismissing the revenge factor.
For Alviti, a senior, the loss to Stevenson remains his only loss as a starter. His next defeat would end his career.
"You don't want to lose, you don't want to go home—for yourself, your teammates, for the school, for the town," said Alviti. "You want to win and bring home a state championship."
During the fall, Alviti has attended nearly every Northwestern home game, just a short drive from his home of Park Ridge. The Wildcats' next contest at Ryan Field is Nov. 24, also the date of the Illinois 8A state championship game. He hopes to be in Champaign rather than Evanston.
If not for a second-half surge on Saturday, Maine South would have seen its season end prematurely. But Alviti and the Redhawks fought like champions do, and their dream lives on.
"It's huge," said Alviti, "for this team, for the coaching staff, for everyone in this community, that Maine South is going on and has another shot at the state championship."