CHICAGO | The packed house at Gately Stadium Friday night spent most of the game on its feet.
And why not?
This was more than just a big rivalry game. It was Mount Carmel and St. Rita, two Catholic League Blue powers in the second round of the Class 7A playoffs.
Mount Carmel let a 14-0 lead slip away and trailed 15-14 when Matt Domer took control and scored on a 10-yard run with 4:34 left to put his team up 20-15.
The Caravan's defense stepped up when it had to.
On the ensuing possession, Enoch Smith jarred the ball loose from St. Rita quarterback Tommy Mister, and Sam Connolly recovered. The Caravan held Mister to 18 rushing yards.
Other than two big plays, the defense stifled the Mustangs for the second time this year.
Smith caused an earlier fumble that Deontae Brown recovered. All night, the Caravan (10-1) frustrated the Mustangs (9-2) in their 20-15 win.
It capped off when Colin Knusta picked off a Mister pass on fourth down with 2:39 left. It put the exclamation point on a thrilling game.
Connolly and Smith were all over the field, shutting down the Mustangs running attack or pressuring Mister into hurries. The defensive backs, led by Christian Searles, did a pretty good job of covering the St. Rita receivers.
The defense has come through all year, even in a loss to Loyola Academy in which the Caravan had four turnovers late.
The Caravan had all the momentum, and its defense had just made a big third-quarter stop on its own 11. The momentum swung as St. Rita blocked a Greg Ploszaj punt for a safety. On the ensuing possession, St. Rita's Julian Crum broke for a 40-yard score.
It was a lapse that usually doesn't happen. The same goes for Mister hitting Crum for a 70-yard strike to put St. Rita up 15-14.
All season long people have stepped up on both sides of the ball, and Friday was no different. Domer, an Illinois recruit, has been consistent all year as has his backfield mate Jimmy Mickens.
This team had a lot of holes to fill, especially on the leadership level from last year's Class 8A state champions. The kids stepped up and didn't get down Friday night. It would have been easy to fold as their spirits could have been broken with the Mustangs tasking the lead. The Caravan defense got right back up and forced plays.
And the offense, quiet most of the second half, came through when it needed to. Mount Carmel showed its mental and physical toughness Friday night.
A lot of that goes to the coaching staff, which didn't panic. Instead, it looked for ways to gain back the advantage.
Frank Lenti and his staff know the road to DeKalb is a tough one, and they are making sure their kids are prepared.