Any high school coach, player or fan will tell you there's no such thing as a bad way to get to Champaign and Aurora Christian certainly didn't mind the path it took to a 50-26 victory over Tolono Unity in the Class 3A semifinals Saturday night in Aurora.
That 24-point margin in the Eagles' favor certainly didn't look possible much of the night. That starts with the Rockets' first score 1:56 into the game, the Eagles' 14-0 deficit two minutes later, or when Tolono regained a 26-21 lead with what could have been eight minutes left in the Eagles' season.
But these Eagles can strike fast. That they did over and over again during the final 7 minutes, 24 seconds with 29 points while driving into a stiff wind.
"We've worked so hard," said Eagles wide receiver Cory Windle who caught one of Anthony Maddie's 4 touchdown passes. "We played a great program in Tolono to get here. They shut us down early and we just kept going. We didn't come out as hard as we should have.
"Everyone stayed positive, everyone kept saying we were going to win this game."
The Eagles (12-1), second in Class 4A in 2008, will go for the 3A state title at 4 p.m. Friday at Memorial Stadium against downstate Mt. Carmel, a 49-19 winner over Greenville.
They also are aiming to be the first Aurora school to win a football state title.
"This is the best feeling you can have at the high school level is winning this game," Eagles coach and Super Bowl winner Don Beebe said. "Because when you win the big one it is kind of anticlimactic because it's like, what do we do Monday? Here you have another game. The euphoria is like something you'll never feel in sports. It's the greatest feeling. Now we just have to go finish it, to cap it off."
Trailing 26-21 in the fourth quarter after Tolono's Michael Lafenhagen's 16-yard touchdown run provided the third lead change in the second half, the Eagles drove to a 4th-and-2 at Tolono's 9-yard line.
Chad Beebe, who left the game in the first quarter after reinjuring his collarbone, came back for his only other play in the game. His dad Don used Chad as a decoy, and Maddie found Grayson Roberts all alone in the end zone. After Maddie ran for the 2-point conversion the Eagles had the lead for good, 29-26 with 7:24 left.
"Chad went in motion, I wanted to clear the underneath out and have Grayson curl back and he was wide open," Don Beebe said. "I was scared to death. I told Anthony whatever you do don't throw it to him (Chad), and it worked. That was a big touchdown."
Kicking off into a strong wind, a gust blew Julian Sosa's high kick away from Tolono's return team. Aurora Christian recovered, giving it the ball right back. Brandon Mayes capped the drive with a 4-yard touchdown run and a 36-26 lead with 3:27 left.
"The kickoff they recovered just broke our back," Tolono coach Scott Hamilton said. The Rockets followed with a pair of interceptions to Mayes and Brandon Walgren. The Mayes theft set up Maddie's 32-yard touchdown run and Walgren returned his interception down the right sideline for the final touchdown of a 43-point second half after the Eagles went to halftime trailing 14-7.
Maddie shook off 2 interceptions and less accuracy than usual because of the wind to finish 17-of-35 passing for 233 yards and 4 touchdowns and a fifth touchdown rushing.
"The wind played a factor but our offense is the way it is and sometimes we struggled but at the end of the day we made plays," said Maddie, who played at state as a sophomore at Joliet Catholic. "Thanks to a great line and especially to Brendan (Mayes) and (Ryan) Suttle tonight. We made plays when it counted."
The Eagles opened the game trying to run Maddie and Mayes to the outside. Tolono was able to run down those plays, but when the Eagles started attacking up the middle Mayes was able to find room for 99 yards, Maddie 41 and Suttle 38 as Aurora Christian complemented its 233 passing yards with 178 on the ground to outgain Tolono 411-317.
"They were so fast so we made an adjustment in the second quarter and halftime that we were going to take it inside the tackles and it really worked and they never made the adjustment out of it and it really hurt them," Don Beebe said.
Saturday's game ended the careers for a Tolono senior class that lost a pair of semifinals and a state championship the past three years.
"We didn't make the big plays and they did," Hamilton said. "The score was not quite indicative of how the game played out.
"It seems we have a tough time in the semis when we go on the road. Hopefully one of these times we'll get one of these bad boys at our place and get these city guys down in the hicks sometime."
As he walked off the field one of those seniors Taylor Black a two-way starter for Tolono who threw for 176 yards and ran for 62 took a moment to praise Maddie and the Eagles' explosive offense while a throng of delirious Aurora Christian backers celebrated the school's second state berth in four years.
"Watching film they move the ball on everyone," Black said. "The quarterback is amazing. He's really good. I have to hand it to them, they are a great ballclub."