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Byron comes out on top in defensive slugfest

Ryan Pearson knew points were going to be at a premium for last Saturday’s Class 3A semifinal game between his Princeton Tigers and the Byron Tigers.

He opted to go for a field goal late in the second quarter, settling for a 7-3 halftime deficit.

That would be Princeton’s last scoring opportunity in a defensive stalemate over the second half, with Byron escaping with that 7-3 margin of victory.

Princeton (11-2) crossed midfield only once in the second half, and saw its deepest march in the playoffs in 17 years come to an end.

“To be honest, I really felt we could put another score on the board. I thought it was important for us to take the points when we had the opportunity to do so,” Pearson said of the PHS field goal. “But obviously hindsight now that it’s a 7-3 game, that’s going to probably be one that haunts me.”

What will surely stay with him forever will be the memories his Tigers made this season. They became the first team in program history to repeat as conference champions, and just the third PHS team to reach the semifinals, following the path of the 1989 and 2002 Tigers.

“We’ve done something that Princeton High School has not done in a long, long time. I just can’t say enough about the effort they gave today,” Pearson said.

“That’s an extremely good football team we played. Our kids played their hearts out. It wasn’t the result we wanted, but we have a lot to be proud about it.”

Byron (12-1) returns to the state championship game, looking to take a step up from its runner-up finish from a year ago when it faces Williamsville at 4 p.m. Friday in DeKalb.

Byron drove 70 yards on 12 plays in its second possession for its only score of the game. Quarterback Ben Carlson called his own number, scoring from 1 yard out to give Byron a 7-0 lead with 3:19 remaining in the first quarter.

Princeton mixed in some passing yards to kick-start its offense on its second possession, late in the first quarter and into the second. Quarterback Tyler Gibson completed four passes to Wyatt Davis (10, 14, 8, 20 yards) and added a 12-yarder to Jacob Starr to put Princeton first and 10 at the Byron 12.

After Ronde Worrels was stopped for no gain, Gibson picked up 4 yards on a keeper, then pitched to Jacob Starr for 5 more yards. An offsides penalty on Byron gave PHS first-and-goal from the 3.

Pearson sent Jamie Reinhardt in for the 19-yard field goal to cut Byron’s lead to 7-3 with 3:24 left in the half.

Byron all-state lineman Tyler Elsbury, for one, was glad to see the Tigers settle for the field goal.

“I was getting a little nervous,” he said. “We had some penalties and stuff on that drive. I was just glad that they wanted to get the three points, and after that, I think our defense held them out of there.”

Byron stuffed Princeton’s run game all game long, limiting it to 52 yards rushing, with all-stater Worrels managing just 19 yards on 12 attempts.

“Their line is just incredible. Elsbury and the other guys, it’s just insane how good they are,” PHS senior center Cole Reynolds said. “They really have no weaknesses with their defense, and it’s something we had to fight through. It’s really hard out there.”

Princeton’s most effective option proved to be passing the ball, with Gibson completing 9 of 21 attempts for 108 yards. He was intercepted by Byron’s Dayne Snodgrass, however, with 2:53 left to seal the game.

“We saw things weren’t working [running the ball], but we were still just trying to push ahead and get plays working. Our passing opened up a little bit with them keying on us, so that helped a lot,” Worrels said.

“They were physical, and we’re physical, too. But sometimes whoever wins that battle is going to get it.”

Princeton’s D slowed down Byron’s offense, which was averaging 44.2 points per game, limiting the Tigers to 166 yards rushing and 13 passing.

“They were big and physical. They were coming off the ball just like we were. Just kind of a size difference. I think we had the bigger guys, and had the movement,” said the Iowa Hawkeye-bound Elsbury, a 6-foot-6, 300-pound tackle.

“They put up a great fight. Can’t really say enough about the game as close as it can be. We knew their offense was good and their defense was really good. We just expected it to be a battle. I don’t know if we expected it to be a 7-3 battle. I think we were predicting more of a 21-20 type of thing.”

That it proved to be defensive battle was not a big surprise to Pearson.

“Our defense is definitely the strong suit of our team. To hold a team like Byron to seven points, that’s a testament to our coaches and our players for executing that plan,” he said.

“I knew coming in, Byron was going to be an extremely tough football team. I thought we were going to be able to run the ball. Be a little more effective against them from what we could. My hat’s off to Byron, because they played a hard-nosed, physical football game. I wouldn’t expect anything less in the semifinals.”