CHAMPAIGN -- Cary-Grove did not win the Class 6A state title Saturday, but the Trojans fell while demonstrating the same brand of never-quit, tenacious football that landed them in the championship game in the first place, pushing until the very end of a 33-26 loss to Crete-Monee.
Admittedly, a bit of wind went out of Cary-Grove's sails once the Warriors recovered an errant pitch at the Trojans' 5-yard line and scored to take a commanding 33-16 lead with 2:51 left in the third quarter.
Each Trojan had a choice to make at that point: succumb or resist. Anyone who pays attention to the manner in which this football program has operated for the last decade knows there was really no choice at all.
"When it first happened I know everybody was a little bit down," Cary-Grove senior defensive lineman Mickey Duncan said of the fumble return, "but leaders stepped up. We were telling everyone we weren't going to give up because we came here to win. We still had the opportunity to win just as much as they did. Although it was a big momentum swing for them, we definitely tried to buckle down and focus on what we had to do to come back and get the W."
If there's a detriment to running Cary-Grove's flexbone option offense, it's that the scheme is not designed for comebacks. Nevertheless, the methodical Trojans pounded away via their dependable ground game. Though the big play never came against speed-infused Crete-Monee, enough sizable chunks of yardage passed beneath the cleats of senior fullback Kyle Norberg (30 carries, 121 yards, TD) and senior quarterback Quinn Baker (25-113-TD) to get the Trojans back in contention.
Baker capped a 13-play, 70-yard incursion with a 2-yard jaunt, a drive highlighted by backup running back Joey Scott's 14-yard run for a first down. Scott was in the game for starter Ryan Mahoney, whose quadriceps spasms took him out of action following his David Tyree-esque third-quarter touchdown reception.
The Cary-Grove defense allowed the Warriors to convert 2 first downs on their next possession before halting that drive on downs at the Trojan 36-yard line, courtesy of a sack by senior end Emerson Kersten, an undersized player who epitomizes Cary-Grove's heart. A 5-foot-10, 172-pound defensive end, Kersten led his team with 8 tackles in the state championship game, 2 for losses.
It took three and a half minutes for the offense to score again, this time after moving 47 yards in 10 plays. Garrett Glueck's second field goal of the contest made it a 1-possession game and reinvigorated the Cary-Grove sideline.
Though the Trojans could not wrangle the ensuing onside kick, the Cary-Grove defense forced a three and out, its second consecutive stop when there was no margin for error.
"We hadn't stopped them for the most part on defense most of the game, but we came up with two big stops," Cary-Grove coach Brad Seaburg said. "I think it really speaks to our kids' calm and cool demeanor when the chips are down. Against Lake Forest (in the semifinals) they came out and scored right away and you never really saw any panic from the coaches or our players. I think that's something that comes from the kids and it's just outstanding that they can do that."
The Cary-Grove offense was unable to muster a third-straight scoring drive minus two injured starters for the entire fourth quarter, including big-play threat Mahoney. A fourth-down pass to Zach Marszal over the middle fell incomplete thanks to a big hit, quashing the comeback hopes of the Trojans and leading to a celebration for the Warriors.
Despite their disappointment, Cary-Grove chins were held high in the aftermath.
"It says a lot about the type of character that we have that we never quit and we played until the clock reached all zeros," Marszal said. "We really put it on the line. It's the last game of the year. As seniors we wanted to leave it all out on the field, hold nothing back. We gave a good run at it and just came up short at the end."
The never-say-die Trojans gained an admirer in the process.
"This is the toughest opponent we've ever played," Crete-Monee linebacker Nyles Morgan said. "They showed they've got a lot of courage, a lot of heart, a lot of fight in them. They had just as much fight in them as we did, but it just didn't turn their way this time."
Cary-Grove's late comeback bid couldn't overcome 4 turnovers and too many big plays allowed against a talented opponent. At least two Warriors, all-everything receiver Laquon Treadwell and Morgan, will play roles in the collegiate national title picture in coming years. By playing team football until the end, the Trojans gave themselves a chance to pull out a victory late against a more physically gifted team.
"I think that shows how much heart we had as a team," Norberg said. "We never gave up. No matter if we were down 17 or down a touchdown, we never gave up. We're a team that never died. We just kept going.
"I really couldn't ask to be on a better team."