SENECA – A handful of Aurora Christian football players turned their heads from Saturday's postgame huddle after a public address announcement about a looming plaque presentation.
Turns out Seneca officials planned to salute the Fighting Irish either way, bestowing hardware moments after Eagles quarterback Austin Bray took the final knee on a 36-27 victory in a Class 3A quarterfinal.
The ceremony ended swiftly enough, but there was no less Seneca sentimentality when the Eagles dispersed from their own gathering shortly thereafter.
"They came out and that was one of the best efforts that we've ever played against," Aurora Christian wide receiver Brandon Walgren said. "We really respect that team. They came out, and they played probably the game of their lives."
No argument from Seneca (9-3). The Fighting Irish, who had attempted just 67 passes entering the game, excelled on the ground in the early stages even as Aurora Christian (9-3) jammed the tackle box with defenders.
Quarterback Bo Taylor, who trains at one of Eagles coach Don Beebe's House of Speed franchises, provided a resounding show-and-tell moment when he burst down the right sideline for a 74-yard touchdown run midway through the first quarter.
A Taylor two-point conversion run provided an 8-7 lead. About five minutes later, he connected with Austin Applebee for an 18-yard touchdown pass on a 4th and goal from the 18.
"That kid is a stud, there's no denying that," Beebe said. "And I told him that after the game. I said, 'Son, you're a college football player. There's some place for you.' "
Beebe likely is coaching a few potential recruits of his own, but for now, his two-time defending state champions will focus on hosting 10-2 Stillman Valley in a semifinal next weekend. Beebe lumped "ugly" on this victory on the heels of four turnovers and six penalties. Strong play from defensive linemen Jack Burke and Jonah Walker stabilized things in the second half.
Seneca rushed for just 67 of its 207 yards after halftime but rallied to within the final margin with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns.
"These kids were told from Day 1 that there's a lot of things they couldn't do," Fighting Irish coach Ted O'Boyle said. "It just shows when you're that age of kid in high school, if you put your mind to something and you believe in something, you can achieve something. And what we achieved this year, I think, is very special."
Aurora Christian twice dodged danger in the closing minutes of the first half. The Eagles' ability to exhale and regroup made everything moot and turned the game's momentum.
Two plays after Applebee pounced on a fumble on a strip sack of Bray, the Eagles recovered a Tommy Lovett fumble on the Aurora Christian 10-yard line. The Fighting Irish nearly sacked Bray for a safety moments later, but he escaped trouble and drew a Seneca facemask penalty in the end zone.
Bray and the offense certainly benefited from more breathing room. With ample time to throw, Bray later connected with Walgren for a 45-yard gain on a pass rainbowed down the right sideline, setting up Legend Smith's go-ahead touchdown on a 4th and goal from the 1-yard line with six seconds before halftime.
"Austin had another really good game passing the ball," Walgren said. "Their corners were playing pretty close this game, so I thought the deep stuff was going to be there more, but we just did what we could."
Aurora Christian covered 90 yards in 1:05 and took a 22-15 lead with Trevor Hills' point-after. While such spurts aren't unusual in the team's spread offense, they ultimately were rare Saturday.
Both teams committed four turnovers, but the Eagles' resilience in scoring 21 points off Seneca mistakes helped them build a 36-15 lead after three quarters.
Smith rushed for 134 of his 160 yards after halftime. Walgren had 10 receptions for 179 yards.
"I'm proud of my guys because they fight hard, even if they're hurt and everything, you know," said Eagles left guard Matthew Ward, a Sugar Grove resident. "Sure, there were moments where they got a touchdown, but everyone just kept their heads high, saying, 'We got this. We're still in this game.' "
Aurora Christian blazed through the playoffs by an average margin of victory of 25.2 points in 2011 and 28.6 points in 2012. Not quite calculable but no less tangible is the distance the Eagles have created from the regular season stretch run.
Missing as many as 15 starters to injury during weeks 6 to 8, Aurora Christian stumbled to the program's first three-game losing streak since 2002, as Marmion, IC Catholic Prep and Montini each rolled by at least 21 points.
Look at the Eagles now.
"Oh, it's crazy," junior offensive lineman Jake Smith said. "From Week 6 having almost no starters and coming here to now, it's just insane what a difference it is."
AURORA CHRISTIAN 36, SENECA 27
Aurora Christian 7 15 14 0 – 36
Seneca 15 0 0 12 – 27
HOW THEY SCORED
AC – Hagerty 4 pass from Bray (Hills kick), 6:14
S – Taylor 74 run (Taylor run), 5:56
S – Applebee 18 pass from Taylor (Applebee kick), 1:09
AC – Walgren 22 pass from Bray (Bray pass), 6:02
AC – Smith 1 run (Hills kick), 0:06
AC – Smith 27 run (Hills kick), 6:09
AC – Barrett 9 pass from Bray (Hills kick)
S – Taylor 1 run (kick failed), 6:49
S – Barnett 88 pass fro Taylor (kick failed), 5:36
RUSHING – Aurora Christian: Smith 26-160, Hagerty 2-40, Bray 4-(-6). Totals: 32-194. Seneca: Taylor 18-136, Lovett 15-78, Leo 2-3, Russell 1-(-10). Totals: 36-207.
PASSING – Aurora Christian: Bray 13-206-204-3-1. Seneca: Taylor 8-12-195-2-1.
RECEIVING – Aurora Christian: Walgren 10-179, Hagerty 2-16, Barrett 1-9. Seneca: Barnett 2-135, Applebee 4-57, Lovett 2-3.
TOTAL OFFENSE – Seneca 402, Aurora Christian 398