Naperville Central juniors help defeat Downers Grove South, give seniors another week

A strong Naperville Central senior class gets to play at least one more week of football, but it was a pair of juniors who did everything they could to make sure the Redhawks were moving on.

Running back Aiden Clark had the game of his life in Friday's Class 8A playoff opener against Downers Grove South, rushing for 249 yards and a personal-best 4 touchdowns in the 31-22 victory. Fellow junior Jake Stanish, a defensive lineman, joined senior stalwarts Christian Kuta and Maverick Ohle up front on a defense that made life difficult on the Mustangs' offense all night long.

After a scoreless first quarter, Clark broke free on a 63-yard touchdown run to open the scoring then added a 68-yard scamper for a 14-0 lead on Downers Grove South, which had opened the season 0-3 before rattling off six straight wins to reach the playoffs. The Mustangs did close the gap to 14-7 at the half on a 23-yard pass from Will Potter to Keon Maggitt, but a 2-yard run by Clark made it a 21-7 contest after three quarters.

"We talked this week about getting seven more days together," said Clark, whose 20-yard fourth-quarter score followed a Logan Ellison field goal and sealed the win. "We didn't want this to be the last game for the seniors."

The 8-2 Redhawks will play at 10-0 Barrington next week in the second round. Their chances will be good if both lines continue to play as well as they did on Friday in Naperville.

"Sure, I'll get a lot of the credit for 250 yards and 4 touchdowns, but this is the best offensive line I've played with in my entire life," Clark said. "When I see the holes they make and I see them pancake guys, it makes me smile."

The Redhawks defensive line did plenty of smiling as well, chasing Potter time and time again and harassing Mustangs' ball carriers at the line. Stanish had a pair of sacks, batted down two passes at the line and helped contain the Mustangs' ground game along with Kuta, Ohle and Daniel Nussbaum. Kuta put an exclamation point on the defensive effort with back-to-back sacks late in the fourth quarter while protecting a 31-14 lead.

"Tonight, we really played some of our best football all year," Kuta said. "It's awesome, we're going up against an undefeated team next week. I want to keep playing with these guys the rest of the playoffs."

Stanish admitted that playing for the seniors gave him an added boost.

"The thought of not being able to play with the seniors again made me realize I have to play my ass off," he said. "It feels great when I see my brothers next to me chasing after them (quarterbacks)."

Downers Grove South coach Mark Molinari, who hugged every one of his seniors after the loss, tipped his hat to the Redhawks' defense. His team moved the ball better in the second half and did close out the scoring with a dazzling 84-yard touchdown pass from Potter to Chris Williams, but they just never really got the running game going.

"Our kids battled. The seniors won back-to-back conference championships, but tonight we took a little too long to get going," Molinari said. "Naperville Central's a good team and their kids up front on defense are pretty good."

  Downers Grove South's Will Potter (2) is wrapped up by Naperville Central's Jude Sutherland Friday October 27, 2023 in Naperville. Brian Hill/
  Downers Grove South's Will Potter (2) looks for an open receiver Friday October 27, 2023 in Naperville. Brian Hill/
  Naperville Central's Christopher Bern is wrapped up by Downers Grove South's Rj Samuels (35) Friday October 27, 2023 in Naperville. Brian Hill/
  Downers Grove South's Deon Davis (6) moves upfield past a host of Naperville Central defenders Friday October 27, 2023 in Naperville. Brian Hill/
  Naperville Central's Aiden Clark is brought down by Downers Grove South's Ethan Onusaitis (9) Friday October 27, 2023 in Naperville. Brian Hill/
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