Spartans help put football team back on map in what might be coach's final title-game appearance.
DeKALB — St. Joseph-Ogden achieved a small goal but not its biggest objective.
“We put SJ-O football back on the map,” junior fullback Connor Janes said. “To get the seniors to the state championship, there’s no better feeling.”
Getting to Friday’s Class 3A title game against Stillman Valley — a school located 40 miles from Northern Illinois University — was only a part of the master plan. The Spartans planned to seal the deal at Huskie Stadium but came up short in overtime, 43-41.
“To not do it for the seniors, kind of (stinks),” Janes said.
SJ-O’s title-game appearance was the fifth in coach Dick Duval’s 26-year tenure. Duval was coy about whether he will continue coaching once he retires as a teacher at the end of the school year.
“This may be my last time,” Duval said. “I will make a decision, but I won’t do it (Friday night) or any time soon.”
His follow-up words possibly provided an indication of his current leanings.
“It is so hard if you’re not in the building all the time,” Duval said. “It’s difficult to be an effective coach.”
The Spartans’ mantra this season — Finish on Empty — was one that had multiple meanings. Without question, Duval said, his players lived up to that motto in their 14th and final game.
“It wasn’t a lack of effort that caused us to be on the short side,” Duval said. “We put everything out there.”
Duval said the Finish on Empty refrain was appropriate.
“I knew this could possibly be my last season, and I wanted to make sure I put everything into it,” he said. “Sometimes kids hold back. You have to put everything out there because you never know when will be your last game.”
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SJ-O (11-3) showed its focus from the outset. Chase Gadau had the tackle on Stillman Valley’s first play from scrimmage to start the game. The Cardinals fumbled on the next play, and Jake Rahn’s third-down tackle forced a punt.
Dalton Walsh mixed passes (six) with runs (five) on a subsequent 11-play scoring drive that featured a fourth-down completion to Jake Stewart to keep the drive alive.
Walsh, a 17-year-old senior, had been anticipating this game for years.
“It was everything I’ve dreamed of since I was 6,” he said. “When I saw the ’06 (SJ-O title) game, I told myself I wanted to be like those guys. We wanted to come out on top, but I’m proud of everyone on the team.
“This is a lifetime thing for me. I’m glad to do this with my brothers, my teammates. We made a lot of plays.”
Senior receiver Stewart understands exactly how Walsh feels.
“This is what we dreamed of, and (Friday) we got to live our dreams,” Stewart said.
The outcome, which ended the Spartans’ winning streak at nine games, resulted in bittersweet feelings as the team prepared to travel back to the high school for a late-night homecoming.
“That’s a tough pill to swallow,” Stewart said.
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The Spartans’ defense forced Stillman Valley to be at its best in the toughest situations. The Cardinals were 6 for 6 on fourth-down conversions.
“We’ve been going for it a lot on fourth down,” Stillman Valley quarterback Connor McNames said. “Coach has confidence we can get it done.”
Brady Depratt led the SJ-O defense with a game-high 14 tackles. Dylan Koss had 12 stops, including a game-high 10 solos. Teammates Gadau and Wyatt Sage were also in on 12 stops.
“What they do (offensively) is not complicated, but they do it extremely well,” Duval said. “We’re not a very big team, and we had trouble stopping the run.”
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On the flip side, SJ-O was also successful on its fourth-down plays, converting 3 of 3.
“We kept them off balance pretty well,” Duval said. “Dalton extended plays all night (by scrambling), and by him extending plays, our receivers got open and he did a great job connecting with them.”
Six Spartans had at least two catches: Stewart (seven), Hunter Hart (six), Janes (five), Clayton Slifer (two), Depratt (two) and Gadau (two).
Janes was the team’s top rusher with 85 yards. Orion Ciota, at less than full strength after suffering a knee injury in the semifinals, rushed for 45 yards and one touchdown. Ciota converted 3 of 4 extra-point attempts.
“We hung in there the whole game,” Duval said. “There was not any time when I didn’t think we could have won, even on the last play. It wasn’t what we wanted to happen, but it happened.”
A Spartans team with 17 seniors relied on the experience and leadership from that group.
“The seniors showed how to do it right,” Duval said.
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SJ-O’s practices took on an interesting look during the week.
“When we practiced against their offense, we never had a football on the field,” Duval said. “They make you play assignment football, and we wanted to make sure the kids did their assignments. For the most part, we did a great job. The team stayed focused and in the moment.”
If there’s any consolation in the loss, Duval said it came against an opposing coach he respects immensely and one he has been emailing regularly throughout the postseason.
“If I have to lose, I have no problem losing to Mike Lalor,” Duval said. “He’s a great individual, a great coach and a good friend.”