The Hancock-Henderson Quill, Inc.
The Illini West Chargers completed an improbable, yet special 2010 football season by winning the Illinois High School Association Class 3-A State Championship last Friday with a thrilling 22-20 victory over the defending state champion Stillman Valley Cardinals.
Both teams came into this game undefeated, at 13-0 and pretty much set on an inevitable collision course since the 3-A play-off bracket came out over a month ago. Stillman Valley was in the midst of a 27-game win streak that included a 21-14 overtime victory over Illini West in the 2009 state semifinals. The Cardinals returned a significant number of key starters from the 2009 squad that went on to win the 3-A title last November.
Meanwhile, the Chargers had won the 3-A title in 2008 and had won 39 of their last 40 games, with the loss to Stillman Valley in 2009 being the low blemish on their almost perfect 3-year slate. However, unlike the Cardinals, the Chargers only returned a small handful of starters from 2009 and their tremendous success this year was unexpected by many of even their most ardent supporters.
This battle for 3-A supremacy on the Friday after Thanksgiving promised to be a bruising clash between teams built on powerful run games and stingy defenses. Each took to the field, at Memorial Stadium on the campus of the University of Illinois in Champaign, hoping to impose its will on the other. The game that followed did not disappoint fans of hard hitting, physical football.
The first quarter saw both teams put together drives that tested the resolve and toughness of the other's defense. Both defenses proved up to the challenge, as the first 12 minutes ended with the Charger and Cardinals deadlocked in a scoreless tie. Finally a fumble recovery by Illini West safety, Cody Carson, of a Stillman Valley turnover, at the Charger 30-yard line, set the stage for the game's first scoring drive.
The 12-play drive covered 70 yards and took a little over 5 minutes. It included conversions of the 4th and 1 situations. The two gains on the drive were 14 and 11 yard runs by senior fullback Kyle Huss. Both plays were traps over the Charger left side and featured good blocking by tight end Colin Beals, tackle Brian Lafferty, guard Jack Carlisle, center Jacob Jacoby, and pulling guard Mason Beals.
The 11-yard pick-up found the end zone for Huss and the Chargers at the 5:34 mark of the 2nd quarter. Following an Illini West time-out to set their strategy, Charger quarterback Zane Schmudlach converted the 2-point run on an option over the right side behind good blocking by guard Mason Beals, tackle Dylan Van Fleet, tight end Dylan Piper, and wing back Ser Whitaker. The Chargers had drawn first blood and led 8-0.
The Charger euphoria was short-lived however as Stillman Valley quickly answered the challenge. After receiving the IW kick-off, the Cardinal offense struck back with a 68-yard run by their fullback to the opposite end zone. Fortunately, the Charger defense would rise up and turn away the Stillman Valley 2-point conversion run attempt. The score now stood at 8-6 in favor of the Chargers.
Illini West would try to respond again before the half and the Charger offense put together an 11-play, 55 yard drive to the Stillman Valley 25-yard line. The drive would stall however as the Cardinal secondary picked off a late Charger pass attempt. The half ended with the Chargers clinging to the narrow 2-point lead.
The Chargers received the opening kick-off of the 2nd half and soon found themselves fighting not only the Cardinals but a stiff wind in their face. This would prove to be the Chargers undoing throughout a bad 3rd quarter that would see Illini West lose the battle for field position, an with it, eventually the lead as well.
Starting deep in their own end following a booming Cardinal kick-off, the Charger offense soon stalled and IW was forced to punt. The wind knocked the kick down and set Stillman Valley up just across midfield. Although the Cardinals couldn't get anything going offensively, their punter let loose with a 55-yard bomb that would pin the IW offense down inside its own 10-yard line.
Unable to get anything going, the Charger offense again punted from deep in their own end. The ensuing punt and Cardinal return set Stillman Valley up at the Illini West 27-yard line. The Charger defense again rose to the occasion, as it has throughout these play-offs, and forced a Stillman Valley field goal attempt. The kick drifted wide left to keep the score at 8-6 in favor of the Chargers.
Taking over at their own 20-yard line, the Chargers again faced a fired-up Cardinal defense hoping to take advantage of the field position. This time the Illini West offense didn't even get to punt, as they fumbled the ball away, after penetration up the middle, by the SV defense.
This time the Cardinals took advantage and covered the 20-yards in only 4 plays. The touchdown and successful conversion run gave SV a 14-8 lead with 0:52 left on the 3rd quarter clock.
The change of quarter, now put the wind at the Chargers back and suddenly the Illini West offense came back to life after its 3rd quarter disappearance. The Chargers would put together a nine-play, 80-yard scoring drive that would reclaim both momentum and the lead.
Two big counter runs over the right side by senior halfback Drake Schmudlach were the pivotal bookends of this scoring drive. The first was a 30-yard sprint that put Illini West out to midfield and gave the Charger offense some breathing room.
The second was a 23-yard scoring run to the right pylon of the end zone. On both runs Schmudlach was the beneficiary of good blocks at the point of attack by tight end Dylan Pieper, tackle Dylan Van Fleet, and guard Mason Beals. Wingback Ser Whitaker also threw a pair of good blocks, while backside guard Jack Carlisle and tackle Brian Lafferty led Schmudlach through the hole.
The conversion run by Ser Whitaker off an option pitch by QB Zane Schmudlach gave Illini West a 16-14 advantage with 9:26 left on the game clock.
A fired-up Charger defense forced a quick Stillman Valley three-and-out, and the short Cardinal punt set Illini West up at midfield. Four plays later, Ser Whitaker was racing 45 yards down the left side-line for another IW touchdown. Although the conversion run failed the Chargers now led 22-14 with 5:30 left on the game clock.
As quickly as the momentum had swung Illini West's way, it shifted just as suddenly to Stillman Valley in a matter of about 16 seconds. That's how long it took the Cardinals to return to ensuing Charger kick-off for a touchdown Stillman Valley now only needed to convert on the 2-point conversion to pull even with Illini West with 5:14 to go in the game.
The Charger defense again rose to the challenge. As the Cardinal QB attempted to go wide right on an option he was forced to cut back. His path to the end zone and a possible tie score was slammed shut by the Charger defense and Illini West still clung to a 22-20 lead.
What occurred next was the longest 5 minutes in football for many in the Charger sideline and among the Illini West faithful in the stands. The Chargers had two offensive possessions and were forced to punt the ball away on both occasions, when a single first down might have ended Stillman Valley's hopes.
Fortunately, the Charger defense continued to come up big. On the first SV possession they would force a punt. Then as the Cardinals began to drive down field toward a potential winning score, senior defensive back Ser Whitaker showed why he was named all-stater. He read the short drop of the Stillman QB and jumped the route, racing into the passing lane and picking-off the Cardinal pass. This interception would seal the win for the Chargers and set off a wild celebration onto IW sideline and in the Charger cheering section.
The Chargers would outgain the Cardinals 311 total yards to 237. This included a 295 to 196 advantage in rushing yardage. This edge on the ground allowed Illini West to control time of possession 30:08 to 17:52.
The Charger ground attack was well-balanced as Drake Schmudlach picked-up 129 yards on 18 carries, Ser Whitaker picked-up 105 yards on 20 attempts, and Kyle Huss added 67 yards on 19 carries, Zane Schmudlach picked up only 3 yards on 3 attempts, but two of those converted into first downs on tough-short yard plays. He also completed 3 of 6 passes for an additional 16 yards.
The Stillman Valley total included only 30 yards on 14 carries in the 2nd half as the Charger defense asserted control of the line of scrimmage when it mattered most. The front line of nose guard Chris Beaver, tackles Ethan Lillard and Jacob Jacoby, and ends Kayden Guyman and Dylan Van Fleet fought hard against a great Cardinal offensive line. Linebackers, Jack Carlisle and Drake Schmudlach, plus the secondary of Ser Whitaker, Cody Carson, Kevin Bray and Trey Bartlett gave great support in helping the defensive line slow down the vaunted Cardinal ground attack.
The Charger tackle chart was topped by Jacoby with 7 stops and Carlisle with 5. Beaver, Carson, Bray, and Schmudlach all finished with 4 tackles, Guymon, Van Fleet, Bartlett, Whitaker, and Lillard each had 3 tackles. Also on the tackle chart were Brandon Gehle, Zane Schmudlach, and Connor Beals.