Even before they got out of the handshake line, some of West Aurora's players were crying after Friday's heart-stopping and gut-wrenching 42-40 loss to Maine South.
For others, the long walk to the locker room for the final time of the season meant a chance to hug teammates and to speak quietly about the season that had just ended while the victorious Hawks celebrated with their fans after this Class 8A opening-round classic.
The game pitted undefeated West Aurora against 6-3 Maine South, and the teams went at each other like Sumo wrestlers in a contest that wasn't ultimately decided until just over just over 2 minutes remained in the game.
"We were all playing for each other," West Aurora senior DaQuan Cross said. "When you're playing for the brother next to you, great things happen."
Offenses dominated. West Aurora gained 488 yards, including 450 rushing yards. Maine South was more balanced, but finished with 474 yards, 269 rushing and 205 passing. The teams traded big plays throughout the contest, which ended with Maine South advancing to a second-round contest against Barrington, one of the teams to have defeated the Hawks this season.
"Huge win, huge win, to come on the road to this environment and win," Maine South coach Dave Inserra said. "This is one of the toughest places I've ever played, and I've been around awhile."
After going undefeated through the regular season and claiming the Upstate Eight Conference Valley Division crown, the Blackhawks suddenly find their season over.
"I think a lot of people probably wrote us off at halftime because they didn't think we were going to be able to get a stop," West Aurora coach Nate Eimer said. "We just kept fighting all the way to the end. You know, we just went toe-to-toe with Maine South, and I don't care what people say, that team's got a good chance to go deep in these playoffs."
Leading 35-27 at halftime, Maine South took the second half kickoff and drove 71 yards in 12 plays and scored with 6:06 left in the third quarter when Nick Leongas hit Matt Holbrook for a 23-yard TD. Leongas was 13-for-16 for 205 yards and 5 touchdowns. He added 106 rushing yards.
"I thought the third quarter was really important," Inserra said. "Offense had a 6-minute and then they ate up most of the rest of the time on their drive. We didn't expect the onside kick to go their way. We knew it was coming."
That West Aurora drive came after the Leongas-to-Holbrook touchdown and involved the Blackhawks moving 69 yards on 14 plays and closed the gap when DaQuan Cross completed a jump pass to Spencer Locke.
West Aurora recovered the ensuing onside kick and scored one play later when DaVion Cross raced 48 yards up the right sideline to cut the lead to 42-40.
"These kids don't quit, that's just who they are," Eimer said. "We've had a lot of them on varsity for three years, and I knew we'd give this kind of fight tonight."
West Aurora got the ball back and drove to the Maine South 1-yard line, when a fumbled center exchange resulted in a Hawks' recovery. The Blackhawks forced a punt with 1 minute left, but Sean McNulty boomed a 63-yard kick that put the ball at West Aurora's 8, and the hosts ran out of rallies.
"It hurts to be right there and not pull it out," Eimer said. "We've pulled out some of these close ones in recent years, and today we didn't. That's playoff football."
Despite being 6-3 entering the playoffs, Maine South's pedigree had been established with games against solid programs including Montini, Loyola, Barrington and New Trier.
"We've played against speed and we've played in tough situations and that makes a huge difference in these games," Inserra said.
DaQuan Cross carried 20 times and gained 163 yards and scored three times for the Blackhawks. His brother DaVion cross carried 16 times, gained 202 yards and scored twice.
"I love playing against good teams," DaQuan Cross said. "We just didn't come out on top. But I couldn't be prouder of my brothers, they left it all out there on the field, and that's more than I could ask."