How a kickoff return from an unlikely hero propelled Pekin football to a playoff victory
PEKIN — Pekin's big stars shared the spotlight Friday night at Memorial Stadium.
Kanye Tyler scored three touchdowns, while Tanner Sprecher ran 22 times for 199 yards and two TDs and Scotty Jordan threw two touchdown passes in the undefeated, state-ranked Dragons' 51-14 win over Plainfield Central in a first-round Class 7A football playoff game.
But it was a 78-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the second quarter by Connor Martin that essentially ended any hopes of an upset by the Wildcats (5-5) and propelled Pekin (10-0, No. 7 in Class 7A) to a second-round matchup next week at Normal Community (7-3).
Down 23-14 after a 1-yard touchdown run by Philip Carlton and burning the Dragons through the air, Plainfield Central kicked the ball to Martin.
Plainfield kept it away from Tyler — but Martin made the Wildcats pay.
"I had to spin around to get out of a tackle early in the run and that slowed me down, but I took off after that. I was so tired afterwards," Martin said. "I give credit to my teammates. They did a great job blocking on that run."
Tyler is a big fan of Martin, a junior who had another kickoff return for a touchdown earlier this season.
"Connor is a great weapon to have next to me on kickoff returns," Tyler said. "When people are trying to tackle him, he runs like nobody is touching him. He's is a great player now, and he'll be a great player next year, too."
Pekin's chance at history
The Mid-Illini Conference champion Dragons added another week to their season Friday and gave themselves a chance to make program history.
If they can get past Normal Community, which has won six straight after going 1-3 to start the year, including a 64-30 thrashing by Big 12 Conference rival Peoria High on Sept. 16, they'll become the first Pekin football team to ever win 11 games in a season. Pekin has had a football team since 1893. The Dragons' previous 10-win seasons were 10-0 in 1951, 10-2 in 1988 and 10-1 in 1995.
Tyler is looking forward to the matchup with Normal Community, which defeated Rockton Hononegah 44-13 on the road Friday night in a first-round matchup.
"I have some buddies on their team (Normal Community). I'm sure we'll do arguing during the week next week," Tyler said.
What to work on
There's no arguing that the Dragons dominated Plainfield Central most of the night Friday, sending the Southeast Prairie East Conference runner-up Wildcats back home to Will County with 2 1/2 hours to think about what hit them.
Sprecher ran 68 yards on Pekin's first play from scrimmage, igniting the overflow crowd of about 7,000, and the Dragons led 37-14 at halftime. They didn't commit a turnover all night.
The only downer for Pekin was Plainfield Central's dangerous passing attack for much of the first half.
Wildcats quarterback Chase Vayda finished 15-for-33 through the air for 212 yards, with most of his completions coming before halftime.
Pekin's pass rush had Vayda running for his life in the second half while the Dragons' secondary locked down Plainfield Central's receivers. Adyn Houston had an interception in the fourth quarter.
Brayden Beckham gave a sneak peek of what was to come on the first play of the second quarter when he sacked Vayda, causing him to fumble the ball out of the end zone and give Pekin a safety.
"We were beating ourselves early in the game, making mental errors. We'll fix that in practice," Tyler said about the Dragons' slow start defensively.
"We started doing our jobs," is how Pekin coach Doug Nutter explained how his team shut down Plainfield Central's passing game.
Tyler scored Pekin's first and last touchdowns on runs of 6 and 7 yards, and he hauled in a perfectly thrown 48-yard TD pass from Jordan. He ran 15 times for 79 yards and caught two passes for 60 yards.
"This was fun. You get super motivated and willing to run through a wall to help your team when you know you're a senior this could be your last game in high school," Tyler said.
Jordan threw another perfect pass when he connected with Houston Roberson III on a 6-yard score on a fourth-down play in the fourth quarter. Jordan was 6-for-15 passing for 82 yards and he ran for 35 yards on five carries.
Sprecher's two touchdowns both came in Pekin's 23-point second quarter. He bulled into the end zone from 8 yards and 1-yard out.
Dragons placekicker Mylee Hansen continued her season-long success on PAT's. She was a perfect 7-for-7, giving her 58-for-63 this fall. Four of her five misses were blocked.
From the Plainfield Central sideline
Plainfield Central coach Rob Keane took over the team in 2021 after being an assistant coach since 2012. He's guided the revived Wildcats to two consecutive playoff appearances after Plainfield Central went 7-56 from 2013 to 2019 including four straight winless seasons (2013-16).
His squad ran into a buzz saw Friday night as it fell to 0-4 this season against teams with a winning record.
"Pekin is talented. Going 10-0 is no small feat," Keane said. "We've been in playoff mode for three weeks because we had to win in Week 8 and Week 9 to make the playoffs. We're grateful for the opportunity to play another week."
Robert Goedert (five catches for 112 yards) and Colby Williams (five catches for 69 yards) were the Wildcats' leading receivers against Pekin. Mason Smith scored Plainfield Central's first touchdown on a 2-yard run in the first quarter.
Steve Stein can be reached at (248) 224-2616 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpartanSteve.