December 2, 2009
By: Evan J. Thomas
The yearly IHSA State Football Championship games recently concluded a few days ago on a breathtaking weekend after Thanksgiving. High School football teams from all over Illinois converged for their final games of the 2009 season in historic Memorial Stadium in Champaign, home of the Fighting Illini.
These teams, these players, these coach’s football seasons began in June during the immense heat of the summer with 2 a days. The weeks of training are geared to take on the task of the upcoming season. On the football field is where the men are separated from the boys, some kids quit, some get injured but they all do this for one common goal, a championship for their school, for their community, for their teammates. 99.9% of these young men will walk off the field having never known what playing in a championship game means, but the few that do will either find out the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. Obviously only a handful of schools will get a chance to play in the season’s defining game. I have never partaken in these events but have seen them first hand and wished I had played football while I was in school. I live within minutes of Montini and I graduated from Glenbard West in 1993 so I have reason wish the best for both schools.
I was on hand to witness and work two of the best games in IHSA football history on Saturday. The first pairing for the 5A Championship game was between the powerhouse Joliet Catholic Academy Hilltoppers (11-2) and Montini Broncos (9-4). Talk about David vs. Goliath scenario, Joliet Catholic has won 13 state titles to Montini’s 1 state title and Joliet Catholic was favored in this match up. The game began with two quick Hilltopper touchdowns off turnovers that put Joliet Catholic up 14-0. Montini answered with touchdowns of their own to keep themselves in the game. After trading touchdowns in the second half, Montini was down 28-21 with under a minute remaining. Bronco’s senior quarterback Brandon Pechloff guided the offense into Joliet Catholic territory and moments later found an open receiver in the back of the end zone to bring the Broncos within one point with 34 seconds remaining. Montini head coach Chris Andriano promptly called on his kicking team to line up and attempt the game tying extra point. Coach Andriano then called a timeout to think what to do next. As the Broncos came back out onto the field coach Andriano decided to make the gutsy decision to go for the two point conversion. Now, after weeks and weeks of tiresome practices and 13 hard fought games the Broncos season will culminate on one final play. Everything these kids battled for all season long comes down to this and will ultimately decide whether these young men will feel the jubilation of celebrating a state title or wallow in defeat. Coach Andriano made his decision to go for it. As the offense walks up to the line of scrimmage no one was sitting, everyone was on his or her feet and at full throat in hopes of what the final play will bring for Montini. Bronco quarterback Pechloff lined up behind center, he took the snap and dropped back to survey the field, he spotted his wide receiver who had lined up on the right side of the formation running a drag route down the goal line. Pechloff wound up and tossed a perfect pass to the goal line as he led the receiver for a diving grab to convert the two-point conversion. Once the Broncos on the sidelines realized the conversion was good, the players rushed the field in celebration of their second state championship. The overjoyed players, coaches, family and friends gathered for the festivities following the game and the presentation of the championship trophy.
On the other side of the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat spectrum we had the IHSA 7A Championship game pitting #2 Glenbard West Hilltoppers (13-0) battling #3 Wheaton Warrenville South Tigers (12-1). Glenbard West is gunning for their first state title since 1983 and their second overall in school history. The Hilltoppers lost in last season’s semi-final game to eventual state champion East St. Louis. The Tigers during their playoff run have ended the seasons of St. Rita and East St. Louis. Those victories have put the Tigers in their second championship game in 4 years. Both teams emerged from the tunnel under a falling darkness and bright lights of Zeppke field. The game got under way with the Hilltoppers and senior quarterback Tyler Warden hurling a careless pass on his first attempt for an interception. After West stopped the Tigers on the goal line and got the ball back at their own 1-yard line, Warden three plays later lost a fumble on the Glenbard West 3 yard line. Two plays later WWS scored on a one yard push to go up 7-0. West added a field goal in the first half to cut the deficit to 7-3 going into halftime. WWS started the second half with the ball and on the third play of the half Tigers senior quarterback Reilly O’Toole forced an ill-advised pass that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by the Hilltoppers All-State linebacker Connor Loftus. The teams traded touchdowns and field goals in the second half to make the game 17-17 with a few minutes remaining. The Hilltoppers had a chance to go ahead with 47 seconds remaining when a 28-yard field goal went wide right missing by barely a foot. Time eventually ran down in the fourth quarter as the game went into overtime-tied 17-17. In the first overtime both teams traded touchdowns. In the second overtime, the Tigers began with the ball and on fourth down at the Glenbard West one yard line scored the go ahead touchdown. With the overtime rules giving each team a chance to score in overtime the Hilltoppers get the second possession of the second overtime. After three imperfect play calls that went for naught the game hangs in the balance, a fourth and goal with the state title and undefeated season on the line for the Hilltoppers. As the teams line up for what ultimately is a defining moment the stadium is going crazy with anticipation. Warden takes the shotgun snap and rolls right, he has about four seconds before his potentially game winning pass sails over the head of a jumping receiver and unceremoniously drops to the ground. As the ball sat motionless on the ground after the incompletion the players on the Glenbard West side became grief stricken. Some players fell to their knees in disbelief, some players took their frustrations out on helmets and other items within their grasp and some players sat with their heads in the hands trying to hold back tears. Some weren’t able hold back emotions and were consoled by other teammates, coaches or family members. Tears of joy and tears of sadness flow after each game as each team wanders up to the podium to receive their trophies. The trophy sitting in the school trophy case will always be a reminder of what that day meant to each of these young men.
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