In the 51 playoffs games he has coached in 16 years at Stillman Valley, Mike Lalor has experienced some remarkable outcomes.
Following a 28-26 upset win over 2-time defending state champ Aurora Christian in the semifinals of the 3A playoffs Nov. 23, the first thing Lalor said as he addressed his team was, “This is truly one of the more unbelievable games I’ve been involved in.”
No one could dispute that claim after seeing Stillman Valley come back twice from desperate situations to pull off its sixth semifinal win under Lalor. None may have came harder than this one.
With exactly six minutes left in the game, the Cardinals took its first lead of the game, 21-20 on a Zac Hare 1-yard run and a clutch Keaton Weber kick.
The key play on the 61-yard drive was a 13-yard pass from Connor McNames to Trevor Gerig on fourth-and-8.
On the ensuing possession, SV forced Aurora Christian into a fourth-and-7 at midfield and were close to maybe closing the game out. Instead, the Eagles converted and three plays later, Austin Bray threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Legend Smith for a 26-21 advantage.
“That didn’t intimidate us at all,” SV’s Logan Alberts said. “We stayed focused and played like we always do – as a team.”
On the ensuing kickoff, SV got a huge break when Trevor Hills, who earlier boomed one into the end zone, hit the ball wrong and it only went 14 yards before going out of bounds.
Taking over at the 46-yard line with 2:27 left, SV opted for the run against an Eagle defense set up to defend the pass. Hare rambled 17 yards and then on third-and-7, Seth Vanbriesen took an option pitch for 12 yards down to the 5-yard line.
“It was crazy,” SV quarterback Connor McNames said. “We were scrambling all over the place.”
With 12 seconds left and the Eagle defense reeling, Hare crashed over the goal line on a 3-yard run. Initially, the officials did not signal a touchdown, as Hare lost the ball when he was tackled. The officials conferred and after many anxious seconds for the hundreds of Cardinal fans that braved the single digit wind chill, it was ruled a touchdown.
“I know I was over the line. It was just of matter of waiting for them to call it,” said Hare, who was keyed on all night by the Eagle defense.
Earlier in the second half, the Cardinals were faced with another daunting task.
Trailing 17-7 after AC’s MJ Zepeda returned an interception for a score, SV found itself with a fourth-and-1 on its own 30-yard line. With the wind in its face, SV opted to go for it and Alberts was gang-tackled for a loss.
Just when it looked like the efficient AC offense would take advantage of field position and make it a 24-7 game, its passing game stopped working, including a critical fourth-down drop.
“Not converting on fourth down was the difference in the game,” AC coach Don Beebe said.
On the next play with AC in a goal line defense, Vanbriesen popped through the line of scrimmage for a 73 run, setting up a 7-yard touchdown by Micah Castronovo off a perfect option pitch from McNames.
“Getting that stop was the play of the game for us,” Lalor said. “If they go down and score, that could have emotionally drained us.”
Still ahead, 17-14, AC wasted little time in driving to the SV-8 yard line, setting up a first-and-goal. A blitzing Eddie Torrance sacked Bray and the Eagles were forced to settle for a field goal. It was the second of the game for Hills and gave the Eagles a 20-14 lead.
On both field goals, AC drove inside the Cardinals’ 10-yard line but gave away eight potential points.
Afterwards, a dejected Beebe lamented that fact.
“That was also the difference in the game,” Beebe said.
The Eagles also handicapped themselves with three costly first-half penalties, each negating 30-yard plus gains.
“We didn’t make the plays and they’re very effective at what they do,” Beebe added. “I thought we played pretty good on defense.”
Brandon Wallgren, who was brilliant in the win over Oregon, put AC ahead 7-0 on a 6-yard reception from Bray.
McNames brought the Cardinals downfield to tie the game 7-7, converting a 34-yard pass to Jacob
Hoey and scoring himself on a 25-yard run. “McNames did a fantastic job of running the team,” Hare said.
The loss was the first for Aurora Christian in the playoffs since 2011. Ironically, the last team to beat them was SV, 46-16.
“We played real gutty football tonight and didn’t quit,” Lalor said.
The Cardinals will play St. Joesph-Ogden on Friday, Nov. 29 in DeKalb for the Class 3A title. The game will be played at NIU's Huskie Stadium at 4 p.m.