STERLING – After the Aurora Christian football team thumped Sterling Newman in Saturday's IHSA Class 3A state semifinal, Comets coach Mike Papoccia was asked if he'd be surprised if the Eagles didn't defend their state championship next week.
"I would be at [6A or 7A]," Papoccia said. "If they play like that, there's nobody that's going to beat them. I mean, we're not a fantastic team, but we're a pretty good football team, and they just picked us apart. They just have so many weapons."
The Eagles (12-1) demonstrated why they're a logical choice to win their second straight state title, going on the road and dominating a previously unbeaten Newman team for a 41-7 victory.
Aurora Christian will face Tolono Unity – a program the Eagles beat in last year's state semifinal round – in this year's championship game at 4 p.m. Friday at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. Unity rolled in the other 3A semi, whipping Greenville, 56-21.
Aurora Christian led 14-0 before Newman's first offensive snap and had the top-seeded Comets (12-1) under duress throughout, forcing five turnovers on the day.
"We knew it was going to be an aggressive game," said Eagles senior linebacker Ryan Suttle, who had a pair of fumble recoveries. "And we were obviously the more aggressive team. We just came out and took it to them."
While the Comets weren't able to control the line of scrimmage as they'd hoped, Aurora Christian predictably exploited its advantage at the skill positions. Senior quarterback Ryan McQuade converted on 12 of his first 13 passes, and connected with senior receiver Cory Windle for touchdown plays of 16 and 26 yards less than five minutes into the game.
The second TD came after Aurora Christian kicker Trevor Hills, kicking off with a 7-0 Eagles lead, stripped the ball during the Comets' return and recovered the fumble himself to give the Eagles possession at the Newman 37-yard line.
"Usually I'm kicking it out of the end zone but there was a little bit of a wind today, so it got caught, and dropped short," said Hills, a sophomore transfer from Wheaton Academy. "Whenever that happens, I usually wait, and I have confidence in my team, but if they do break through, I've made three tackles this year. That was my third."
The Comets' best drive of the day then covered 69 yards for a touchdown as Newman came within 14-7 at the 2:32 mark of the first quarter. But McQuade turned his attention to his first cousin, senior receiver Chad Beebe, on the ensuing drive, culminating with a 14-yard TD grab in which Beebe nimbly remained in bounds for the score.
Beebe (seven catches, 86 yards) made a nice adjustment for another impressive TD grab from 19 yards out as the Eagles padded their lead to 28-7 with 8:04 left in the second quarter.
The day's flashiest play came in the closing stages of the first half, with Newman driving deep into Eagles territory.
The Comets, without much of a passing attack, resorted to a trick play with about 30 seconds left from the Aurora Christian 23. But Newman's double-pass attempt went terribly awry, as Eagles cornerback M.J. Zepeda stepped in front of Comets quarterback A.J. Sharp before he could haul in sophomore Dillan Heffelfinger's cross-field, return pass.
Zepeda scooted about 65 yards up the Eagles' sideline for a back-breaking touchdown to make it 34-7 with 23 seconds left in the half.
Aurora Christian coach Don Beebe said he vocalized to the team before the game his premonition that junior Legend Smith would return an interception for a touchdown during the first half, but instead it was the Eagles' other cornerback.
Zepeda said the trick play wasn't a major surprise.
"They had not much time left on the clock, they had to get down there somehow," Zepeda said. "Something had to come."
Papoccia said an assistant coach lobbied to give the double pass a shot and, considering Newman struggles to score quickly, he decided to roll dice.
"I didn't want to run the play, I don't like the play, but sometimes you do stuff just to appease people," Papoccia said. "Oh well."
Although McQuade cooled off in the second half, the Eagles continued to effectively run clock as running backs Joel Bouagnon (16 carries, 119 yards, TD) and Brandon Mayes (five carries, 40 yards) played a larger role until the Eagles pulled most of their starters in the late stages.
It was Aurora Christian's third rout in four playoff wins, with a second-round, 28-21 win against Immaculate Conception the lone exception. The Eagles' only loss on the season was a narrow one against 5A juggernaut Montini, which, like Aurora Christian, earned a repeat trip to Champaign on Saturday.
"Good luck to anybody that plays [Aurora Christian]," Papoccia said.
AURORA CHRISTIAN 41, STERLING NEWMAN 7
AC 21 13 0 7 – 41 Newman 7 0 0 0 – 7
HOW THEY SCORED
First quarter AC – Windle 16 pass from McQuade (Hills kick), 9:09 AC – Windle 26 pass from McQuade (Hills kick), 7:21 SN – Snow 4 run (Breed kick), 2:32 AC – Beebe 14 pass from McQuade (Hills kick), 1:04 Second quarter AC – Beebe 19 pass from McQuade (Hills kick), 8:04 AC – Zepeda 64 interception return (pass failed), 0:23 Fourth quarter AC – Bouagnon 7 run (Hills kick), 10:56
INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS RUSHING – Aurora Christian: Mayes 5-40, Bouagnon 16-119, McQuade 1-13, Beebe 2-7, Mobley 3-12. Totals: 27-191. Sterling Newman: Bahrs 11-33, Rude 13-40, Heffelfinger 8-36, Snow 12-48, Jensen 4-19, Sharp 3-minus 18. Totals: 53-158 PASSING – Aurora Christian: McQuade 13-22-2-167, Mayes 0-1-0-0. Totals: 13-23-2-167. Sterling Newman: Sharp 4-9-0-35, Heffelfinger 0-1-0-0, Terveer 1-1-0-5.. Totals: 5-11-0-40. RECEIVING – Aurora Christian: Beebe 7-86, Windle 4-61, Mayes 2-20. Totals: 13-167. Sterling Newman: Ivey 1-11, Bittner 2-11, Rude 2-18. Totals: 5-40.