It's nice being able to turn to one of the best kickers in the state with the game on the line.
What wasn't so nice was for Sycamore to have to lose yet again to Montini in the state playoffs despite playing some great football.
The 9-2 Broncos pulled out Saturday's thrilling second-round Class 5A contest 24-22 after senior kicker Andrew Harte drilled a game-winning 34-yard field that sailed through the uprights with 1.1 seconds left on the clock.
The kick capped a wild second half in which each team scored 3 touchdowns following a scoreless first half and saw the Spartans (7-4) claim a 22-21 lead after a gutsy 2-point conversion run by Austin Culton, who banged and bruised his way to 137 tough yards and a touchdown against the Montini defense.
Culton's PAT followed a 7-yard TD pass from Devin Mottet with 31 seconds left to play and brought the visiting fans to their feet. But the cheers shifted to the other side of the field almost instantly when the Broncos' Tucker Mucha returned the kickoff 32 yards to midfield. Three plays later, Harte connected for the game-winner.
"When they scored the 2-pointer I went up to the offense and I said give me a shot," Harte said. "That's what I live for. I wanted that opportunity to go out there and make that kick."
After Mucha's big kick return, Alex Wills -- one of three Broncos to play quarterback on the day -- hit Joe Borsellino for quick passes of 9 and 8 yards and just 9.8 seconds showed on the scoreboard. Borsellino then lined up behind center on the "Joe Cat" formation and gained 12 huge yards down to the 17-yard line before Montini called timeout with five seconds remaining to set the stage for Harte's heroics.
Harte, the state record-holder for consecutive PAT kicks, watched center Patrick Strzempek snap the ball to holder Tyler Trumpane, and then he booted the ball and began to celebrate before watching the completion of the play.
"I knew it and I turned right around and didn't even see it go through," he said. "I turned around and went to Tyler to celebrate. I probably should have watched it go through, but I knew off my foot that it would be good."
The Broncos' wild celebration sends them off to a quarterfinal matchup at unbeaten Marian Central, which defeated Woodstock North 41-20. The win also keeps alive Montini's hopes for a fourth straight state title.
The Spartans, meanwhile, suffered a heartbreaking loss despite amassing 400 yards of offense and owning a lead in the final seconds.
"It was an epic battle," said Sycamore coach Joe Ryan, whose team has been eliminated from the playoffs four times with second-round losses to Montini. "When the sting of this game goes away they'll understand some great things happened today, but they're still not going to be happy with the result."
The Spartans dominated the first half everywhere but the scoreboard. Sycamore outgained the Broncos 193-55 in the first two quarters but lost three fumbles and some valuable opportunities for points. The visitors also had a short field-goal attempt bounce off an upright.
"It's high school football at its best," said Montini coach Chris Andriano, who received a postgame hug from his mom, who said it was the best football game she'd ever seen. "They deserved to win. I told No. 1 (Culton) and No. 8 (Ben Niemann) I'm their biggest fan. Those two guys are terrific football players who played as hard as they could to give their team a chance to win."
While Culton was picking up big yards on the ground, Niemann hauled in 11 passes for 124 yards including a big fourth-down grab near the sideline that beat double coverage and set up Sycamore's late go-ahead TD.
After a sluggish first half of offense, Montini moved starting quarterback Mark Gorogianis to receiver, and Wills connected with Gorigianis on a 38-yard TD pass and later added a 19-yard scoring strike to Michael Dusek.