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STERLING -- Was there ever a doubt?
Aurora Christian continued to make the defense of its Class 3A state championship look easy Saturday, scoring a pair of touchdowns before its semifinal clash with Sterling Newman Catholic was five minutes old on the Eagles' way to a 41-7 victory.
Newman (12-1) had not lost before Saturday but really was never in the game after Eagles quarterback Ryan McQuade marched his team 80 yards in 8 plays on the opening possession. Newman fumbled the ensuing kickoff, then McQuade tossed the second of his four touchdowns and the rout was on.
The Eagles won the game on the field turf at Sterling High School, a track that -- along with another huge following of fans in red on their side -- must have made them feel right at home. Their offense and defense sure looked the part, outgaining the Comets 363 yards to 199, as they celebrated their second straight trip to Champaign.
"The goal every year is to be the best," Eagles senior two-way star Brandon Mayes said. "It's all about attitude. We go into every game thinking we can win it and trusting God. That's one thing this team has is good heart, we all care about each other."
Newman's Mike Papoccia, a Hall of Fame coach who is no stranger to state championship teams, had little doubt his team just lost to the 2012 champs.
"Good luck to anybody that plays them," Papoccia said. "Maybe 6 or 7A (Aurora Christian could lose). If they play like that there is nobody that can 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. We usually get a good rush on and today we hardly had anything. And they are well-coached. They do the things right we need to do."
That team Papoccia is wishing good luck to be turns out to be Tolono Unity (12-1), a 56-21 over Greenville Saturday, who will play the Eagles (12-1) for the Class 3A state title at 4 p.m. Friday at Memorial Stadium.
It's a rematch of last year's 3A semifinal, a game Aurora Christian won 50-26. That 24-point margin is the norm these past two years for the highflying Eagles who are 9-0 in the 3A playoffs with 7 wins by at least 24 points. Other than a 7-point win over Immaculate Conception and 13-point victory last year at Oregon, the Eagles have won their playoff games by 27, 35, 24, 27, 37, 35 and Saturday's 34-point win.
"Their timing is impeccable," Papoccia said. "They've got strength (at) running back. They've got quickness and size at wide receiver. Their quarterback was awesome today. The tapes we had he never threw the ball that well but he was right on today. He was the difference I would say. I was worried about 23 (Joel Bouagnon) and we didn't do too bad of job on him but the quarterback was really tough."
McQuade was especially sharp early completing his first 8 passes in the first quarter for 108 yards and 3 touchdowns. He finished 15 of 23 for 178 yards, 4 touchdowns and 2 second-half interceptions.
Cory Windle and Chad Beebe took turns hauling in passes. Both had a pair of touchdown receptions, and Beebe caught 9 passes for 98 yards.
After Windle's 16-yard touchdown on a slant, Eagles kicker Trevor Hills recovered a fumble on the Comets' kick return -- the first of five fumbles. McQuade found Windle again, this time from 26 yards out for a 14-0 lead.
After a 13-play, 69-yard answer by the Comets all on the ground trimmed the lead to 14-7, Beebe made a fully extended diving catch in the end zone while dragging his feet to stay inbounds to make it a 21-7 game.
Beebe scored the next touchdown when the Eagles audibled to a seem, and he jumped and twisted in midair to haul in a 19-yard score.
"I knew the out-of-bounds line was close but Ryan placed it perfectly and I just had to get my feet in," Beebe said of the first touchdown. "(The second TD) the defense had its back to the ball so I just had to jump up and take it over him."
Beebe's two scores put the Eagles up 28-7 with 8:04 left in the second quarter. And as Aurora Christian's defense started to shut down the Comets' ground game, Newman's chances to overcome that kind of deficit with a passing game that went 5-of-10 Saturday for 34 yards were slim and none.
And as they say, slim left the building late in the second quarter. Driving to the Eagles' 23-yard line trying to pull within 28-14 at halftime, on 4th-and-8 the Comets tried a double pass.
But that second pass never came as Eagles junior corner MJ Zepeda read the play perfectly and stepped in front of the lateral pass, caught it in stride and raced 64 yards for a touchdown and 34-7 halftime lead.
"I saw it coming the whole way," said Zepeda who had returned 2 interceptions for touchdowns earlier this year. "I just have to give the glory to God. He's the one that set that up for me. They didn't have much time left on the clock so there had to be something tricky coming. I just saw it and read it and picked it."
Eagles coach Don Beebe had told his team on the bus coming over one of his cornerbacks would have a pick-6, only Beebe had predicted Legend Smith.
Papoccia wished his team had never called the play, one his team had never used until Saturday.
"That hurt," Papoccia said. "That was a trick play we put in and one of my coaches wanted to put it in and things weren't going right for us as it was and we tried that and they snuffed it out easily. I didn't want to run the play, I don't like the play, but sometimes you do stuff to appease people."
"That I thought was the nail in the coffin," said Don Beebe, glad to see his team's fast start after their last two playoff wins were tight early.
"We knew we were going to have to start much quicker than we have the last two weeks. We couldn't do that against a great program like (Newman)."
Bouagnon's 7-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter provided the only scoring for either team in the second half. He finished with 118 yards rushing on 16 carries.
The defense also had stars including Ryan Suttle recovering 2 fumbles and Mayes deflecting a pair of passes that could have gone for big plays.
"Same excitement, two years in a row, we're going to enjoy it just as much," said Chad Beebe who for the second straight year returned from a midseason injury to help get his team to state.
"I think we're just prepared. Over the off-season my dad has us going through so much stuff. And obviously a tough schedule during the season I'm sure that helps in the playoffs. The regular season has a lot to do with how well we do in the playoffs. I've been through a lot of trials but God always has a plan. I can't thank Him enough."