Sterling outlasts Potters

Bryan Veginski
Morton senior DJ Zahn, No. 7, gets upended by Sterling’s Ryan Hermes in the fourth quarter Saturday as Potter senior Jon Losen provides a block. Zahn rushed for 254 yards and three touchdowns, but the Morton football team lost in a Class 5A first round road game at Roscoe Eades Stadium, 28-21. The Potters finished the season with a 7-3 record.

Sterling’s stable of running backs helped the Golden Warriors overcome a spectacular performance Saturday by Morton’s DJ Zahn.

The Potters’ first playoff football appearance since 2007 ended after one round following a 28-21 loss to Sterling at Roscoe Eades Stadium.

“We just didn’t put it all together today,” MHS head coach Jason Thiry said. “We shot ourselves in the foot.”

No. 6 seed Morton (7-3) led twice, then tied the game in the fourth quarter before the Golden Warriors ran for the game-winning touchdown with 3:53 left.

Zahn amassed 254 yards and recorded all three Morton touchdowns. Once he found an opening, Sterling did not have anyone who could slow the senior.

“He carried the team on his shoulders,” said Thiry of Zahn. “That’s a heck of a lot of yards for a playoff game.”

After the teams traded punts, Zahn took the second handoff of Morton’s second drive and sprinted 74 yards for a touchdown.

The Potters forced third-seeded Sterling (8-2) into its second consecutive three-and-out, but lost a fumble.

The Golden Warriors immediately took advantage of excellent field position as Jacob Gilroy fought off defenders for a 15-yard TD run at the 5:28 mark of the first quarter.

That sequence sort of summed up Morton’s afternoon for Thiry — every good play seemed to be offset by something that went wrong.

Over the next six minutes, the teams combined for just one first down. But that changed quickly.

On the third play of the second period, Zahn got loose again and dashed 73 yards to the end zone, giving him 170 on his first nine carries.

Using running backs Gilroy, Bryan Commisso and George Canales, Sterling went 80 yards in seven plays. Commisso’s four-yard plunge knotted the game again at 14 with 8:03 remaining until halftime.

The aforementioned trio all gained between 60 and 80 yards to make up for the loss of season rushing leader Corey Hartz, who was out with a concussion.

Thiry said a good program like Sterling is always going to have a slew of running backs.

It was tied at the break after a block-in-the-back penalty on the Golden Warriors negated a touchdown in the final seconds when the home team took a missed Potter field goal attempt to the house.

Morton made a big stand to start the third quarter.

Sterling kept the ball for more than eight minutes calling 15 running plays, but had to turn the ball over on downs when Commisso was stopped by the Potter defense for a one-yard loss on fourth down and three at the Morton 24.

A bad snap on a Potter punt handed the Golden Warriors possession just nine yards from the goal line.

Commisso’s eight-yard burst at 11:55 of the fourth quarter gave Sterling, the No. 9 ranked final Associated Press 5A state poll, its first lead of the afternoon.

Morton responded with an 11-play, 64-yard scoring drive that created a 21-21 deadlock with 6:30 left.

Zahn racked up 54 of the yards, including a nine-yarder to pay dirt, before Connor Kindred’s third consecutive extra point.

A 57-yard kickoff return set the Golden Warriors up at the Potter 36.

Canales picked up the first 21 yards before Commisso motored the last 15 on another momentum-changing play.

A 15-yard Sterling penalty on Dalton White’s return positioned Morton at the Sterling 48.

Quarterback David Rossi was sacked on third-and-long, forcing the Potters to punt.

Armed with timeouts and enough time with which to work, especially with a big-play weapon on its side, the Morton defense needed to keep the Golden Warriors from picking up a first down.

An offsides penalty shortened Sterling to a third down and three, which it converted with a Commisso seven-yard run.

It ran out the rest of the clock to advance to a second-round matchup with Joliet Catholic.

Only three passes were completed, two by Rossi. He hit Zahn and Joe Pflederer.

Metamora, in 4A, was the only one of four Mid-Illini Conference teams to win in round one.

The Potters engineered a four-win turnaround from 2009, which included an improvement from fifth place to a share of second in the Mid-Illini Conference.

“These seniors did a nice job of getting the program turned around,” Thiry said. “I’m proud of our guys, I thought they had a great year.”