GENESEO — Coal City's special teams powered the Coalers to the third round of the football playoffs for the first time since 2007 on Saturday afternoon.
The only Coalers touchdown in a 12-10 Class 4A win at Geneseo came on a 46-yard Ryland Tondini punt return with 5:19 remaining in the second quarter. Their other points came on field goals from junior Lane Cowherd from 29 and 18 yards.
The latter kick, which completed the scoring with 6:34 remaining in the game, was set up by a 39-yard Tondini punt return. The senior totaled 116 yards on five punt returns to go with his 54 yards on 14 carries.
"Our blocking made it happen," Tondini said. "Niko Cyrkiel took out about three guys on my two big ones. That's what gave me a shot at the end zone. ... We lost our first returner (Jack Dibble) so I've tried to step in and do the best I can in the role."
The effect of special teams on the outcome was not limited to what the Coalers did; if also involved what the Maples Leafs did not do. Facing a fourth-and-5 from the Coalers 27, Geneseo coach Larry Johnsen opted to send out junior kicker Kevin Wolak for a 44-yard field-goal attempt with under a minute to play. The kick missed badly, and with Geneseo out of timeouts, the Coalers needed two Brennan Shetina kneel-downs to complete the win.
"Being a head coach, you really appreciate the difference that great special teams can make. We did a great job of getting prepared in that phase of the game," Coal City coach Lenny Onsen said. "(Cowherd) is a young man who is very athletic, but at one time, he lacked the confidence to kick those field goals. Now he's very confident."
Geneseo, which trailed 9-0 at halftime, broke the shutout on a controversial play. On the first offensive play of the second half, Coal City senior Dylan Hakey was ruled to have fumbled after losing the ball as he was going to the ground. Rayce Singbush of Geneseo grabbed it and ran uncontested into the end zone for a touchdown. Much of the Coal City sideline and fan base vocally insisted that Hakey was down before the ball came loose, but the call stood.
"It was a tough play. I thought I was down before it came loose, but it was close. ... I really can't say for sure if it was (a fumble) or not," Hakey said. "Turnover or not, you have to come back from it, and I thought we did that."
The Maple Leafs took a 10-9 lead on a 29-yard Wolak field goal with 1:18 left in the third quarter. It lasted until the second Cowherd field goal.
Six of the Coalers' 11 games this season have been decided by a margin of seven points of fewer. In 2011, when the Coalers went 9-2 but were eliminated by Stillman Valley in the second round of the playoffs, they played in only two such games.
"We're a little different team, in terms of relying on our defense and then our special teams like we did today," Onsen said. "And we're not the offense we were, though I think our offense has made strides. But we have played more of these types of games, and we're comfortable in them. We know we can finish."