State-bound SJ-O strikes early, often
GREENVILLE — The quick-play team was outquicked.
St. Joseph-Ogden’s football team made fast work of its Class 3A state semifinal opponent Saturday at Don Stout Field.
It took seven seconds after kickoff for SJ-O to get the ball.
It took another seven seconds for the Spartans to reach the end zone.
For the first time.
It may have seemed like an eternity from then (the 24-minute first half lasted 1 hour, 20 minutes) before St. Joseph-Ogden wrapped up the school’s fifth appearance in an IHSA state championship game.
For the second week in a row, the Spartans ended an unbeaten school’s season, handing Greenville a 44-21 Class 3A loss.
“Breathtaking,” said Seth Griswell, one of the 17 SJ-O seniors who had to fight back his emotions as he joined teammates in a postgame rendition of the school fight song to the loyal fans who made the 21/2-hour journey. “I even started crying a little. Unbelievable.”
Ditto for the Spartans’ performance.
Against an opponent coming off a 71-point scoring spree, SJ-O:
— built a 32-0 lead after 19 minutes of action;
— allowed the home team two first downs on its first four possessions;
— forced the 12-0 Comets into eight turnovers.
“The best feeling in my life,” said Chase Gadau, who set the game’s tone, recovering a fumble on the opening kickoff at the Greenville 21-yard line.
The victory sends a Dick Duval-coached team into the state finals for the fourth consecutive decade and kept the veteran coach unbeaten (5-0) in semifinal contests. SJ-O first reached the title game in 1989 and went again twice in a three-year span of the 1990s, as well as in 2006.
“I’m glad to be going back,” Duval said. “Our fast start helped. It was so important because it gave us confidence. That first play put them in shock mode.”
That first play was followed by a second play with equal shock value. Spartans quarterback Dalton Walsh tossed a 21-yard scoring strike to Hunter Hart in the end zone.
With 11 minutes, 46 seconds left in the first period, the Spartans led 6-0.
SJ-O (11-2) extended its winning streak to nine games but had to overcome adversity to do so.
Tailback Orion Ciota was injured late in the first quarter and played sparingly thereafter.
Connor Janes shifted from fullback to tailback, but he was sidelined while being stopped short on a fourth-and-1 play with 2:38 left in the half.
When SJ-O had another second-quarter possession, the offensive lineup looked unlike anything that had been on the field in 13 games.
“When we got tailbacks hurt and banged up, we used one (Brady Depratt) we hadn’t used at tailback all year,” Duval said, “and one who hadn’t played there since his freshman year.”
Depratt, who had two interceptions, is a senior.
Gadau, who took the field as a fullback when Janes became the go-to ball carrier, said the team was undaunted when lineup changes became a necessity.
“You have to be ready for anything,” Gadau said. “You don’t think ahead, just live in the moment. The depth in our lineup is pretty good.”
SJ-O regrouped at halftime. Janes was able to return at full speed and rushed for 130 of his game-high 191 yards in the second half. He was called upon as a ball carrier 34 times.
Gadau, who had four carries covering at least 19 yards, added 114 rushing yards on nine attempts. Ciota totaled 75 on 17 carries, 12 coming before his injury.
“I can’t say enough about Chase,” Duval said. “He ran hard. He ran possessed. He ran like a man, and he blocked hard, too. He was outstanding.”
Janes scored both of SJ-O’s second-half TDs.
“I’ve never had a game like this,” Janes said. “Orion had faith in me. It’s amazing to do this for these seniors.”
Duval has seen signs of Janes’ emergence.
“It all started to click in Week 7,” the coach said. “He’s a physical specimen, and we’ve been on him to play harder. (Saturday), he put it all out there.”
SJ-O rolled up 28 first downs, 22 on running plays. Walsh passed for 97 yards, with three of his eight completions going for touchdowns.
On a windy day when Duval was most concerned about slowing down a Greenville offense — which finished with a season-low point output — it was SJ-O that flourished when it had the ball.
Walsh, a senior playing like a poised and confident veteran, directed SJ-O to scores on four of its first five possessions, and Cole Berry wasn’t called upon to punt until the final 90 seconds of the first half.
There was no letup after Hart and Ciota scored first-quarter TDs.
“After what they did last week, we thought we had to keep scoring on them,” Griswell said. “We wanted to run the ball and take time off the clock.”
Friday’s championship game against Stillman Valley (11-2) will start at 4 p.m. at Northern Illinois University.