For the first time in 3 football seasons, there will be a Class 3A state champion other than Aurora Christian.
Senior fullback Zac Hare's 3-yard touchdown run with 12.9 seconds remaining capped an 11-play, 59-yard drive and propelled Stillman Valley (11-2) to a come-from-behind, 28-26 state semifinal victory over Aurora Christian (9-4) Saturday night in frigid Aurora.
For a brief moment, it appeared that the Eagles were heading to their third straight state championship game after nose guard Tristin Withrow recovered the ball in the end zone.
However, the referees conferred and ruled that Hare had crossed the goal line before losing the ball.
"I knew I was across the goal line," said Hare, whose older brother, Trevinn, was a member of the Cardinals' 2009 state championship squad. "It was just a matter of getting those refs to know that I was across the goal line."
Hare (19 carries, 70 yards) was confident his team could pull off the last-minute drive from previous experiences.
"We've done it before," said Hare. "We went 40 yards in a minute against Byron (to win 28-21 in Week 5). We knew we could do it."
This time, however, the late heroics came against the 2-time defending 3A state champion Eagles on their home turf.
"It was a hard-fought game," said Hare, whose team will face St. Joseph-Ogden in Friday's 3A state title clash in DeKalb. "Aurora Christian is an amazing team. They have a great coaching staff and great players. It just came down to the wire."
Midway through the fourth quarter, Hare's 1-yard TD plunge capped a 16-play, 62-yard drive and gave Stillman Valley its first lead of the game at 21-20.
The Eagles responded in championship fashion as junior quarterback Austin Bray (16-of-30, 130 yards) connected with senior tailback Legend Smith on a 10-yard TD shovel pass to put the home team back on top, 26-21, with 2:27 remaining.
After a failed 2-point conversion pass, the Eagles made another crucial error when the ensuing kick landed out of bounds near midfield, setting up the Cardinals with a short field.
"We needed a stop and we got a horrible kick," said Eagles coach Don Beebe. "We called a pooch kick but it's supposed to be pooched to the 15 and it landed at about the 45. We've got to force them to go long field instead of 50 yards.
"That was a huge turning point in the game."
It wasn't the only one.
Aurora Christian, which led 10-7 at halftime, came up with a huge defensive play on the Cardinals' opening series of the second half.
Senior defensive back MJ Zepeda stepped in front of quarterback Connor McNames' pass and returned the interception 37 yards for a touchdown that extended the Eagles' lead to 17-7.
Zepeda bobbled the ball twice before securing it and taking off down the sideline.
On their next defensive series, the Eagles stopped Stillman Valley short on a 4th-and-1 run and took over possession inside the Cardinals' 30.
But the Eagles came away empty after managing just a 5-yard gain on a third-down pass from Bray to Noah Hagerty.
"In my mind, that was the difference in the game," said Beebe. "If we score there, it's 24-7. We couldn't convert. We had two dropped balls -- one for a touchdown."
The loss ended the Eagles' postseason winning streak at 13 -- a streak that began after a state quarterfinal loss to Stillman Valley in 2010.
"These senior kids have had a great run -- I'm very proud of them," said Beebe. "Not many kids can say they've been to two state championships and the semifinal -- unless you're at Montini (5A) or Rochester (4A). It has been a great ride with these kids and it's sad to see them go."
"I feel like this was the state championship game," said senior defensive end Jonah Walker, a starter on the Eagles' 2012 and 2011 title-winning teams. "I think Stillman (Valley) is going to go out there and win at state.
"They played a great game against us."