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Class 2A 2nd round playoffs: Orion at Rockridge

Orion's Dawson Schulenberg (2) throws for a touchdown against Rockridge during the second round of the IHSA Class 2A playoffs last Saturday in Edgington. Schulenberg and the Chargers have won their last two games on final-minute drives, a product of a two-minute drill they've worked on since June.

ORION, Ill. — Orion's two-minute drill is frenetic and fun to watch.

And in the last two weeks, it's proven essential to the Chargers' success.

Orion has advanced to Saturday's Class 2A quarterfinal matchup against Eastland-Pearl City thanks to a pair of comeback wins in the first two rounds of the Illinois high school playoffs.

The comebacks aren't flukes, merely products of the emphasis Orion has placed on situational football all season. The Chargers will run their two-minute drill two to three times per week and take any opportunity during the season to incorporate it into games.

"If you look in the last 10 years at all our sequences, at the end of the half, we're really good at scoring in this drill, and we're really good at scoring at the end of games," head coach Chip Filler said. "When you do this in the regular season, people talk about it, but now you do it in the postseason, in back-to-back games, it becomes lore, it becomes stuff legends are made of."

The groundwork for the two-minute drill starts getting established in June, back when the Chargers are running 7-on-7 drills. By the time the season rolls around in August, the full drill is implemented.

It's a lot to throw at a team of teenagers, but having several seniors on the team has made it easier to implement this season.

"We're very prepared for the two-minute drill," senior quarterback Dawson Schulenberg said. "Most of the time, even before (Filler) calls a play we know what play we're going to run. We've practiced it so many times, we all know the whole two-minute drill in our minds."

It is scripted but it does change based on what the opposing teams do defensively.

Last week, Rockridge played man coverage, and the Chargers took advantage with five pass plays, drawing a pass interference call and throwing just one incompletion.

Schulenberg capped the drive with a 21-yard touchdown pass to running back Seth West to give Orion the lead.

"We messed up a lot of zone coverage, and what would have helped us out is if we could have sat back in a zone there, but we just kept blowing a lot of zones earlier," Rockridge head coach Sam Graves said. "We figured the easiest thing for the guys would be man-to-man, but when you do that and you don't get pressure on the quarterback and he has time to get the ball off, you see what can happen."

Against Fieldcrest in the first round of the playoffs, the Chargers faced quarters coverage and were content to take the field the Spartans were giving them. Seth West had two carries and Schulenberg was 4-of-6 for 47 yards, including a key touchdown pass on a fade route to Jeffrey Holbrook once the Spartans played up on the line of scrimmage near the end zone.

"I looked at how the corners were playing the technique on the last play," Schulenberg said. "I knew since they were coming up, I knew I was going to have Jeffrey open in the back of the end zone."

So what's the best strategy when defending the Chargers in the closing minutes?

"It would be tough, since we have such a variety of different formations and playsets," West said. "I honestly don't know how to answer this question. It would be really tough to defend against."

A lot of that is due to the weapons Schulenberg has at his disposal. Even without star tight end Logan Lee — who was selected to participate in the 2019 Polynesian Bowl, a high school all-star game scheduled for Jan. 19 at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu — the Chargers have plenty of other options in West, Holbrook, Ryan Fowler and others.

"It definitely shows what kind of team we are. We're not selfish if someone gets a touchdown," West said. "That's what is so hard about our offense, we just have so many options we can go to."

Still, Orion would like to not have their quarterfinal game against Eastland-Pearl City come down to the wire and would prefer to put its stamp on the game early as the third-ranked team in the state.

"I think it will show we're not just lucky because a lot of people I'm sure are saying, 'Oh, they just get lucky in the final minutes,'" Holbrook said. "I think it will show we are a good football team and we can come out from the start and be dominant, but when we need to at the end, we can put together those drives to win the ball game."

Still, there's no doubt the Chargers will be ready for another tight finish if they need to be.

"I don't know if there's any way to avoid it; it seems like that's our destiny," Filler said. "If we get in that situation again, I feel very comfortable we've got the team to do it. Hopefully we don't, it's getting rough on our fans, but it makes for entertaining and great memories."

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Sports reporter for the Quad-City Times