Close call for Spartans in title game
DeKALB — This is a football game that will be talked about for years.
“An incredible game,” Stillman Valley coach Mike Lalor said. “It’s what you dream a state championship game would be, literally down to the last play.”
For St. Joseph-Ogden on Friday, it was a near-perfect game on offense during the 48 minutes of regulation in the Class 3A state finals at Northern Illinois University’s Huskie Stadium.
There were no SJ-O penalties, no SJ-O turnovers and only once on 65 plays was quarterback Dalton Walsh sacked.
This is a game that will go down in history as the heartbreaker of all time for the Spartans.
Before Stillman Valley wrapped up a 43-41 overtime triumph — the first 3A game in the 40-year history of the IHSA finals to require an extra session — there was controversy in the finish.
The Cardinals’ winning TD came on a fourth-down play from the 2-yard line in which television replays showed a player fumbled prior to crossing the goal line. There is no replay in high school football, and the officials’ decision on the field to allow the score was not reviewed.
“It was a judgment call,” SJ-O coach Dick Duval said. “Everyone makes mistakes, but the ball sure looked out. There’s not much we can do about it.”
Stillman Valley (12-2) had possession first in the overtime and applied pressure by scoring the maximum eight points. SJ-O still had a chance to force another OT, though the odds didn’t look good after a first-down penalty left the Spartans facing first and 27.
Senior quarterback Walsh — who played the best game of his prep career — came right back with a 22-yard completion to Jake Stewart before handing off to Connor Janes on third down for a 5-yard scoring run.
SJ-O’s two-point attempt was thwarted before a play could be made.
Walsh was sacked almost as soon as he got possession of the ball.
“I didn’t see it coming,” Walsh said. “Before I could look (downfield), two guys were tackling me.”
On a day when the offenses from both schools were dominant, a defensive play settled the outcome. In their fifth all-time appearance in a championship game, the Spartans were close but returned home with the same outcome as the previous four times.
“I’ve had coaches tell me they’d love to be in the game five times, even if they came up short,” Duval said, “but I think every one of them would say if they were here five times, they’d want to win one.”
The Spartans scored touchdowns on six of their nine possessions and amassed 395 yards of offense. Walsh completed 24 of 35 passes for 259 yards and touchdowns to three different receivers.
“I haven’t had that good of a passing game,” Walsh said. “To do it on this kind of stage feels pretty good, but it (loss) is hard to take.”
Normally a run-first team, SJ-O attempted more passes than running plays (18-16) in the first half as well as for the game.
“We came in with a good game plan, but after the first couple series and we saw how they’d be defensively, we opened it up more,” Duval said.
The loss stings, Duval said, but not so much for him personally.
“I feel bad for our kids,” he said. “I’ve been here five times, but these seniors don’t get another opportunity to come.”
Knowing Duval’s penchant for running the ball, Lalor said he would have been elated pregame if someone would have told him his defensive unit would limit SJ-O to 136 total rushing yards on 34 tries.
“We thought if we could shut down the run, we could live with the pass,” Lalor said. “After a while, I was hoping they’d run it. We couldn’t get a rush, their receivers didn’t drop any balls and that quarterback is one of the best we’ve faced in a long time.
“He picked us apart and knew where the holes were.”
Six Spartans had receptions. Janes, Clayton Slifer and Hunter Hart all turned passes from Walsh into touchdowns.
Stewart had a team-high seven receptions and was pleased to see the aerial assault.
“As a player, you think Coach will run first,” Stewart said, “but once we figured we could pass, I was like, ‘Let’s keep doing it.’ ”
Stillman Valley’s 230-pound fullback, Zac Hare, scored four TDs. He had one with 1:19 left in regulation — also on a fourth-down play — as well as the decisive one in OT.
“He’s a big boy, and we’re not that big,” said 165-pound SJ-O linebacker Wyatt Sage, who was one of four Spartans with at least 12 tackles. “At the end, they wore us down.”
En route to the school’s fifth state title in football, Stillman Valley needed four tries from the 2-yard line to reach the end zone on its tying drive late in regulation.
“This is truly a game of inches,” Lalor said. “A handful of inches separated us from getting in or not getting in. What an incredible high school game, back and forth.
“I congratulate St. Joseph-Ogden.”
Since Mahomet-Seymour won it all in 1977, Champaign County has been shut out in nine attempts to bring home the state championship:
ST. JOSEPH-OGDEN (0-5)
YEAR CLASS RESULT
1989 2A L 27-13 to Woodstock Marian
1997 2A L 35-28 to Central A&M
1999 3A L 41-8 to Byron
2006 3A L 47-42 to Plano
2013 3A L 43-41 (OT) to Stillman Valley
YEAR CLASS RESULT
2000 2A L 35-14 to Stillman Valley
2005 3A L 34-7 to Bureau Valley
2009 3A L 52-22 to Stillman Valley
2012 3A L 42-12 to Aurora Christian