'I saw green': How this playoff battle of Wing-T offenses turned on one long run

Bill Welt
State Journal-Register
Hillsboro's Blaze Helton tackles Roxana's Evan Wells during the first round of the Class 3A playoffs at Sawyer Field on Saturday, October 29, 2022.

HILLSBORO — No. 9 Roxana and No. 8 Hillsboro appeared to be in a defensive stalemate.  

Reserve sophomore running back Zeb Katzmarek bucked that trend with the go-ahead 66-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter and Roxana nicked the host Hiltoppers 13-7 in the first round of the Class 3A playoffs.  

It was just his second touchdown of the season.  

“As I hit the hole, I saw green and that's what I wanted to get,” Katzmarek said. “And as I got closer and closer (to the end zone), I was getting tired. I was hoping no one would tackle me from behind.” 

The Shells (7-3) advance to the second round against top-seeded Fairbury Prairie Central, which walloped No. 16 Paxton-Buckley-Loda 57-12. 

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Hillsboro's Zane Duff celebrates a fumble recovery during the first round of the Class 3A playoffs against Roxana at Sawyer Field on Saturday, October 29, 2022.

Stingy defense 

Hillsboro’s defense, led by senior linebacker Blaze Helton, otherwise contained Roxana’s rushing attack.  

Helton finished with nine tackles and a sack while senior Brayden Fowler helped force a key fumble in the second period, recovered by senior teammate Zane Duff.

“I thought our defense played really well,” Hillsboro coach Joe Reed said. “I thought we had a good scheme for what we were going to see today. He (Katzmarek) came in and credit him, he got the sideline, got the edge, and he knew what to do with it.” 

Duff capitalized on the turnover with a 19-yard TD pass to junior receiver Zander Wells in the corner of the end zone to even the contest 7-all with 38.4 seconds left in the first half. Duff finished 4-of-10 for 52 passing yards and one touchdown while Wells had three receptions for 38 yards.  

Hillsboro's Dylan Lessman carries the ball during the first round of the Class 3A playoffs against Roxana at Sawyer Field on Saturday, October 29, 2022.

Junior running back Dylan Lessman led the offense with 79 rushing yards on 12 carries while junior Jace Stewart and senior Jaben Compton combined for 64 rushing yards.  

Helton, the primary running back at the start of the season until a lower-body injury, added 23 rushing yards on seven attempts. 

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“I loved it,” Helton said of the Wing-T showdown, “because all week we've just been going against our scout team Wing-T and they gave us excellent looks. I feel like this was probably the best defensive game I played in all year. I felt loose, I felt like I was flying all around the field and I was reading my guards and I was just reading off their offense very well.

"I felt like I was making tackles and coming up big when it mattered.” 

Hillsboro (6-4) appeared in the playoffs for the first time since 2017 in Reed’s second season at the helm. 

“I think that's kind of a testament to our kids’ maturity,” Reed said of the offensive adjustments midseason. “They're unselfish and they just want what's best for our team to win.” 

Hillsboro's Zander Wells catches a pass from Zane Duff during the first round of the Class 3A playoffs at Sawyer Field on Saturday, October 29, 2022.

‘Mental battle’ 

The Hiltoppers opened the first quarter with an 11-play drive to the Roxana 15-yard line.

Roxana junior linebacker Braden Johnson snuffed out that possession with a sack and forced fumble, recovered by senior teammate Ashton Noble.  

Junior quarterback Chris Walleck capitalized with a 15-yard TD pass to junior Evan Wells to cap a 12-play drive that included two fourth-down conversions. 

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Sophomore defensive back Andruw Ellis nabbed the interception late in the fourth quarter to cement the win.  

Junior running back Terrel Graves led the Shells with 11 carries for 87 yards. Wells and Nik Ward combined for 68 rushing yards.  

Ellis had 29 rushing yards and two catches for 38 yards. Walleck went 4-of-7 for 63 passing yards. 

“It was more of a mental battle,” Katzmarek said. “I think we broke through well at the end. I think coach (Wade) DeVries said earlier we play 22 players, and they play about 13, so we're always fresh and I think that's what really got us the game. We could beat them down physically and we were still ready to go at the end.” 

Contact Bill Welt: (217) 788-1545,,