In an IHSA state championship thriller considered by many to be the finest of the eight games played last weekend at Northern Illinois University, Stillman Valley defeated St. Joseph-Ogden 43-41 for the 3A title in football.
The two storied programs had no turnovers, minimal penalties, were 10-for-10 on fourth down attempts, had total yardage that was close, and were never separated by more than one touchdown.
In the end, it was a 2-point conversion by Zac Hare that proved to be the difference and gave the Cardinals (12-2) their fifth state title in six state final appearances.
“State title games are dramatic,” Hare said. “I can’t adequately describe this game.”
For St. Joe-Ogden (11-3), it was complete and utter disappointment, as they remain winless in five trips downstate, including a 1999 loss to Byron.
“We’re very depressed— to come that close,” said Dick Duval (229-72), in his 26th and maybe final year as SJO coach. “To have been here five times and come up short, it’s really rough.”
Even winning coach Mike Lalor left the field with a self-described “pit in the stomach” after seeing the toll exacted on Duval, a long-time coaching mentor of his.
“I’ve never had a win that I felt so much mixed emotion and have never seen a coach with that kind of (shell-shocked) look on his face,” Lalor said. “It is gut wrenching. Football truly is a game of inches.”
In the first possession of the overtime period, Hare scored on a controversial fourth-down play from two yards out. Televised replays gave indications that a fumble may have occurred, but officials ruled it a touchdown.
“The replay that we’ve been getting is that the ball was out (before crossing the goal line),” said a very succinct Duval.
As SV attempted to kick the extra point, error-free SJO was hit with its first penalty of the game. With the ball half the distance to the goal line, Lalor opted for a 2-point conversion instead and Hare crashed over for a 43-35 advantage.
“The whole night we executed so well. That penalty came at the wrong time,” Duval said.
The Spartans found themselves in further trouble after another penalty made it first-and-27 instead of first-and-10 in their overtime possession. Quarterback Dalton Walsh, who had the game of his life, somehow managed to escape the SV rush and found Jake Stewart for a 21-yard gain.
“Dalton (24-35 for 259 yards passing) extended plays all night,” Duval said.
Two plays later Connor Janes scored from six yards away and Duval was forced to come up with a 2-point play to force another overtime. With Walsh having a hot hand, a passing play was called.
Unfortunately for Walsh and his teammates, he never had a chance to get the ball off as nose guard Logan Alberts and end Eddie Torrance, a pair of 175-pounders speedsters, blew through the line for a quick sack.
“I didn’t even see them coming,” said Walsh, who was only sacked one other time. “My line had done a great job all night.”
“There wasn’t too many open gaps, but this time one opened up and I went through as fast as I could,” Alberts said.
Early in the fourth quarter, Alberts also scored on a 3-yard option pitch on fourth down to pull his team within 28-28. For the game, the Cardinals were an incredible 7-for-7 on fourth down conversions, including their last three touchdowns.
“What they do is not complicated, but it’s hard to stop, especially the big fullback (Hare),” Duval said.“They physically wore us down at the end.”
In a continuing battle of one-upmanship, SJO wasted little time in taking back the lead, 35-28. Walsh converted 4-of-5 passes on the next drive, the final one a 21-yard crossing pattern to Hunter Hart on fourth-and-11 for the score.
With 1:14 left in regulation, Hare (39-for-174 yards rushing) scored on another fourth down and dependable kicker Keaton Weber (5-for-5) ensured overtime with the PAT.
“Mike Lalor is the reason they’re here every year,” Duval said. “Good programs find ways to win games.”
When SJO shut down SV’s running game to start the game out, Lalor went to the pass the loosen up the Spartan defense. McNames found Jacob Hoey on a 25-yard pass and later on the same drive, Alberts caught a 19-yarder from McNames on fourth down to set up SV’s first score, an 8-yard run by Micah Castronovo.
Those were the only completions SV had the entire game, but were enough to force SJO into backing off the line of scrimmage.
“They had jumped into 11 guys up front and we had to do something to get them out of the box,” Lalor said. “I didn’t realize we converted seven fourth downs, but we had to go for it to prevent them from having the ball. The pass completion (McNames to Alberts) was the biggest of them all.”