AURORA – There will be no three-peat for the Aurora Christian football team.
Stillman Valley rallied from a 10-point second half deficit and scored the winning touchdown with 12.9 seconds left in the game to pull out a 28-26 victory in an IHSA Class 3A semifinal.
“They’re a great football team,” Aurora Christian coach Don Beebe said. “They’re a great program. Nobody’s going to argue that point. They’re probably going to go get their fifth title in 16 years, so credit to them and the way they played. We just didn’t make plays when we had to make plays.”
Beebe thought the Eagles (9-4) played fairly well defensively, and a case in point was Michael Zepeda’s third-quarter interception, which he returned 37 yards down the right sideline for a touchdown. That gave Aurora Christian a 17-7 lead.
The Cardinals (11-2) turned the ball over on downs on their ensuing possession, giving the Eagles a chance to pad their lead, but Austin Bray’s fourth-down pass fell incomplete.
“That was the whole difference in the game,” Beebe said. “If we come away with seven there, it’s 24-7 and a different game. But you’ve got to give them credit. They stopped us. We didn’t make the play when we had to.”
Bray completed 16 of 29 passes for 130 yards in frigid, breezy conditions. The game-time temperature was 20 degrees, with a wind chill in the single digits. Beebe was not about to use the conditions as an excuse or accept any suggestion that they favored Stillman Valley’s run-based offense.
“It didn’t affect the game at all,” he said. “Not at all. No. Austin threw his butt off.”
Bray threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Walgren in the first quarter and a 10-yard scoring strike to Legend Smith in the fourth quarter.
Smith, a senior running back, ended his prep career with a tremendous effort, gaining 162 yards on 29 carries. His touchdown gave Aurora Christian a 26-21 lead with just 2:27 left in the fourth quarter.
“I mean, we had it,” Smith said of the game. “It was right there. I gave it my all. We all gave it our all.”
Smith plays both ways and he was on the field when Stillman Valley’s Zac Hare scored the game-winning touchdown on a 3-yard run. Like many other Eagles, Smith thought Hare lost a fumble before crossing the goal line.
“I was right there,” Smith said. “I saw the fumble.”
Not surprisingly, the Cardinals saw things a bit differently.
“I asked Zac if he got across and he said he did,” Stillman Valley quarterback Connor McNames said. “They were jamming up the box. They knew what was coming. Everybody knew what play we were going to run. They were keying off of Hare the whole game. Our line got big movement and that’s the key.”
The Eagles limited Hare to 68 yards rushing on 21 carries, but the Cardinals made good use of a stable of other running backs, rolling up 230 yards on the ground on 57 attempts.
Stillman Valley will meet St. Joseph-Ogden Friday afternoon in the Class 3A championship game at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.
“We’ve been dreaming about this since we were all little kids,” McNames said. “We came out and we made goals at camp. This was one of our goals, to make it here, and we did it. We just kept fighting and it paid off.”
STILLMAN VALLEY 28, AURORA CHRISTIAN 26
Stillman Valley 7 0 7 14 - 28
Aurora Christian 7 3 10 6 - 26
HOW THEY SCORED
AC - Walgren 7 pass from Bray (Hills kick), :38
SV - McNames 25 run (Weber kick), :20
AC - Hills 25 FG, 1:49
AC - Zepeda 37 interception return (Hills kick), 10:17
SV - Hoey 7 run (Weber kick), 6:23
AC - Hills 25 FG, 1:11
SV - Hare 1 run (Weber kick), 6:00
AC - Smith 10 pass from Bray (pass failed), 2:27
SV - Hare 3 run (Weber kick), :13
RUSHING - Stillman Valley: VanBriesen 4-75, Hare 21-68, Castronovo 4-16, Gerig 3-35, Elliott 2-11, Acton 9-32, Torrance 2-3, McNames 11-54. Totals: 57-230. Aurora Christian: Smith 29-162, Bray 2-minus 2, Walgren 1-1. Totals: 32-161.
PASSING - Stillman Valley: McNames 4-8-1-67. Aurora Christian: Bray 16-29-0-130.
RECEIVING - Stillman Valley: Gerig 2-30, Hare 1-3, Acton 1-34. Aurora Christian: Walgren 5-57, Smith 5-25, Roberts 2-31, Barrett 1-11, Hagerty 2-3, Hills 1-2.
TOTAL OFFENSE -- Stillman Valley 297, Aurora Christian 291