Baseball is the sport that is often coined a game of inches but Highland Park football experienced how a matter of small distances can make all the difference on the gridiron.
The Giants entered their second-round playoff matchup against perennial IHSA Class 6A powerhouse Cary-Grove knowing they’d have to keep the Trojans mighty offense on the sidelines as much as possible.
After allowing an opening-drive touchdown to the Trojans, the Giants put together a solid first series, gaining two first downs, but a crucial fourth-and-1 attempt near midfield was stuffed by Cary-Grove. Two series later, the Trojans again slammed the door shut on a Giants’ fourth-and-inches attempt 5 yards from the goal line.
The Trojans’ defensive stands propelled them to an early 21-0 lead that proved to be insurmountable for the Giants despite their valiant comeback attempt that included more than 400 yards of total offense.
Cary-Grove withstood Highland Park’s spirited performance, outlasting the Giants 49-29 on Saturday, Nov. 4, at Wolters Field to advance to the quarterfinals of the 6A playoff tournament.
“Cary-Grove is a great, physical team,” Highland Park head coach Anthony Kopp said. “We knew that we had to do what we could to keep their offense off the field, and credit to them, they’re a tough, physical team and I hope they go to win state here.”
The Giants kicked their comeback hopes into gear early in the second quarter when sophomore Lucas Gordon recovered a Trojans’ fumble, setting Highland Park up inside Cary-Grove’s red zone.
Five plays later, Highland Park senior quarterback David Finfer rushed in a 3-yard keeper to put the Giants on the board.
But it was the Trojans fierce rushing attack that once again put the Giants on their heels with a quick strike. A 77-yard touchdown run by Cary-Grove’s Andrew Prio on the second play of the ensuing series gave the Trojans a three-touchdown lead again.
The Giants could not find an answer for Cary-Grove’s powerful ground game. The Trojans amassed 329 rushing yards, and six of their seven touchdowns came on the ground.
“They’re very good at rushing the ball,” Kopp said. “They’ve been doing it for a long time; that (offense) has good players everywhere and they’re just a very physical football team.”
Highland Park opened the second half with a bang. Finfer connected with senior Andrew Cortes for a 68-yard touchdown strike. The Giants then converted a successful two-point attempt via a rush from senior John Walker, putting Highland Park back within two scores at 28-15.
The Trojans answered quickly, however, with two consecutive scoring drives of their own, seemingly putting the game out of reach for Highland Park.
But the Giants refused to give in, answering Cary-Grove’s run with a touchdown drive of their own when Finfer connected with senior Nicholas Rosenbloom for a 4-yard score.
The resilient Giants had one more late push in them when they put together a 79-yard scoring drive capped off by a 24-yard touchdown pass from Finfer to Walker.
Highland Park then attempted and recovered an onside kick but the Giants could not rally further as time expired.
“I’m extremely proud of the resilience,” Kopp said. “This is a group of seniors that have been through a lot. A lot of them were three-year varsity players and just seeing the growth and the development and the teamwork within them … they just really bought into being a part of this program and being a great team. I’m so proud of them for fighting”
It was a strong performance from the Giants offense, which racked up 421 yards of total offense (110 rushing, 311 passing). Finfer accounted for more than 400 total yards on his own as he added 97 rushing yards to his 311 passing.
Joining Finfer as offensive standouts for the Giants were Cortes, Walker, Rosenbloom and Nicholas Blumer, the last of whom hauled in a game-high 10 receptions for 114 yards. Cortes caught three passes for 84 yards while Walker gathered seven for 85 yards plus two successful two-point conversions (one rushing and one receiving).
“I’m so proud of every single one of these kids,” Finfer said. “There’s not really a way to put it in words. Everyone has given us 150 percent of their effort. … I just couldn’t be prouder of everyone and couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve done this year. It’s just amazing.”
Although the season did not end how the Giants hoped, it was a campaign that was full of positives for the group, including the team’s first playoff appearance in six years and first playoff win in 14 years.
“It was an unbelievable season,” Finfer said. “We’ve learned so much. We’ve completely changed the culture this year. … We learned, we changed and we evolved (throughout the season).
“This group is so special. I wouldn’t change anything that we’ve done. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
The Giants will be hit hard by graduation as the team will bid farewell to many of their key contributors from this year. In addition to their on-field triumphs, Kopp will also remember the senior group for its impact off the field.
“This group has meant so much,” he said. “Their commitment to the program has been huge, and always putting the team first; that’s something that you really need as a group to come in and establish. And them just buying into doing whatever the team needs is just so important for the growth and future of the program.”
Martin Carlino is a co-founder and the senior editor who assigns and edits The Record stories, while also bylining articles every week. Martin is an experienced and award-winning education reporter who was the editor of The Northbrook Tower.