CHAMPAIGN – St. Thomas More won a school-record seven games and hosted its first playoff game in school history. The Sabers put their program in position to take the next step, and all they needed to do Friday night was look across the field at the Wilmington players and coaches celebrating their 34-6 victory to know what that next step looks like.
"I told our juniors and sophomores and even the freshmen, 'This is what you take from this. This is what it takes,' " St. Thomas More coach Dan Hennessey said. " 'You look over there, you see what that football team did to you and that's what you have to take out of it.' "
Junior Carson Woodworth sat on the field and let the tears flow while his teammates tried to console him. Even Hennessey fought back tears when talking about his senior class that rebounded from a 1-8 season a year ago to become the best team in St. Thomas More's short history.
"The seniors set the standard, and we'll just take it from here," Hennessey said.
For the first three quarters, the Sabers had themselves in position to extend their record season. Despite being dominated in almost every facet of the game, the Sabers trailed 7-6 late in the third quarter after a Dylan Ray 5-yard touchdown run.
But just as it appeared the Sabers were turning the momentum, the Wildcats answered with an eight-play, 60-yard drive to take a 14-6 lead entering the final stanza.
Wilmington pulled away in the fourth quarter, thanks in large part to two St. Thomas More turnovers. Ty Surman (14 carries, 109 yards) then found the end zone from 4 and 28 yards out after the turnovers to put the Wildcats ahead 27-6.
Wilmington ran 69 plays to St. Thomas More's 39 and outgained the Sabers 416-61. The Sabers managed four first downs, all of which came in the second half.
"When you can't keep your offense on the field, that's what happens," Hennessey said. "We played defense three quarters of the football game, so they were bound to put up points. That's one heck of a football team over there, and they really come after you and stick it to you."
Wilmington dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, holding Ray, who came into the game averaging nearly 7 yards a carry, to 40 yards on 20 carries. But while Wilmington controlled the ball most of the game, it was far from perfect. The Wildcats committed 11 penalties for 100 yards, but still, St. Thomas More couldn't take advantage.
"We tried everything," Hennessey said. "We ran inside, but we certainly knew we couldn't run outside. They were just too fast."
Said Wilmington coach Jeff Reents: "Penalties killed us all night, but we bounced back from it. It was really frustrating there in the first half. We wanted some more points, but by the same token St. Thomas did some good things against us that took us out of our game for a little bit."
Twelve seniors played in their last game for the Sabers on Friday night, and they've meantso much to the St. Thomas More program that Hennessey couldn't get the words out to explain it.
"You see the tears in my eyes," he said. "We took a major step this year."