As St. Viator made the nearly two-hour trek to Sterling for its first-round playoff game, second-year coach Dave Archibald had many things to ponder.
• His offense was going against a Sterling defense that allowed a grand total of just 59 points while going undefeated in regular season play.
• He was getting back the services of second-leading rusher Jack Scislowski, who was returning from an ACL injury that sidelined him the last four games.
• He would not have the services of their leading rusher, Elijah Black, who injured his shoulder in last week's regular-season finale at Notre Dame.
• His defense would include DB Christian Dolecki, available for play after ironing out an ACT scheduling conflict.
• His defense had to stop a Golden Warrior attack that scored 407 points in the regular season, powered by 1,342-yard rusher Nyrel Sullivan and his 25 touchdowns.
By the time it was over, Archibald was left to ponder the what-ifs as the season came to an end Saturday. The No. 15-seeded Lions dropped a 48-0 decision to the No. 2 Sterling at Roscoe Eades Stadium in Class 5A north bracket play.
"We knew how good they were coming in," Archibald said. "We got ourselves into a deep hole early and despite our kids battling back like crazy, it was too deep a hole to overcome."
That hole started after Viator's opening possession that started with a fumble on the opening kickoff.
The Lions were inside their 10-yard line. After the drive ended with a three and out, the subsequent punt ended up going for a net 24 yards.
That meant the Northern Illinois Big 12 West Division Champions started on the Lion 31 for their opening series.
Six plays later, Sullivan found an opening past the Viator line for the first (22 yards) of his 4 rushing touchdowns.
Five seconds later, disaster struck when a botched option pitch went into the arms of Golden Warrior defensive back Turner Garcia, who scooped it up at the Lions 12 and took it in for a 14-0 Sterling lead.
The host school took advantage of Viator's ensuing drive when it stalled after a fake punt run ended on the Sterling 49.
With 5:33 left in the quarter, Sterling went on a 13-play, 51-yard drive that Sullivan (28 carries, 162 yards) finished off with his second TD from a yard out.
The 5-foot-11, 170-pound senior found a seam in the Viator defense on his third TD run (48 yards) that made the score 28-0 with 4:05 remaining before halftime, giving him 99 rushing yards in the game's first 24 minutes of play.
The Golden Warriors (10-0) extended the lead to 34-0 in quarter three on a 12-yard pass from Trey Morse (10-of-14, 108 yards) to Nolan Sullivan (no relation to Nyrel) at the 4:13 mark.
The host's advantage got up to 41-0 with Nyrel's final score from 2 yards out just 34 seconds into the fourth quarter.
Junior reserve Negil Bruce completed the scoring with a 1-yard run with 3:48 remaining.
For Sullivan, who went over the 1,500 yard mark on the season, he gave his offensive line and his coaches their propers as Sterling earned 234 yards on the ground.
"First of all, our coaches did a great job getting us prepared for this game," he said. "(St. Viator is ) a good team that plays in a very good conference. Our offensive line (Kerry Reynolds, Tyler Willman, Michael Eberhardt, Tyler Hanrahan, John Rahn) was great. They created a lot of holes for me against a team that has a really strong front seven that plays real tough. They came up big for us today."
St. Viator (5-5) got closest to putting points on the scoreboard on both of their final possessions of each half. After traveling to the Golden Warriors' 14 yard line on a 14-play, 56-yard drive, a 31-yard field goal attempt by Bryce Hellgeth was blocked with 31 seconds left in the first half.
On its final possession, Viator ended at the Sterling 2 when Hellgeth got tripped up on a 16-yard jaunt as time expired.
But it was in that final drive that Archibald's Lions showed the pride that helped them qualify for postseason play in back-to-back seasons for the first time in over a decade.
Archibald paid homage to each of his 22 seniors after the game.
"I have had the honor of getting to walk with these guys on their road through varsity football," Archibald said. "They won some huge battles along the way and they rose up to meet those challenges."
That group of seniors included two-year starting quarterback Hellgeth.
"He's such a great kid that demonstrated such great skills in both being able to throw and run with the football," Archibald said. "He was such a coachable kid. I respected his intensity and the respect he showed both his coaches as well as his teammates. To come in knowing that you always had that with him was a big benefit for us."
Hellgeth (17-of-35, 158 yards) returned the compliment.
"Coach was great from the first time we met him," Hellgeth said. "He was great in helping us set goals each year and the value of putting in the work during our off-season program that helped make us tougher for those battles we fought the last two years."
The Lions' signal-caller also took an opportunity to give plaudits to his teammates.
"At the end, we didn't quit despite everything going against us the way that it didm" he said. "We wanted to keep playing together especially in the final minutes of play. I had a lot of fun the last two years playing with these guys."
For Sullivan, a trip to Maple Park is next on Saturday night to face No. 10 seed and NIB 12 East Division member Kaneland (7-3), a 47-0 winner over Chicago Lindblom on Friday night.
"We'll enjoy this win tonight and go back to work Monday," Sullivan said. "As you go further along in the playoffs, practice becomes more important."