CHAMPAIGN If ever a program needed a healthy dose of faith to make it through a season, it was the 2011 Aurora Christian football team.
Good thing for Don Beebe's Eagles that they have the kind of faith that moves mountains.
And as it turns out, that also can hoist a state championship trophy.
Aurora, you have a state football champion. Finally.
Aurora Christian delivered that Friday at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, coming up big again and again defensively in the red zone while quarterback Anthony Maddie worked more of his magic in a 34-7 victory over Mt. Carmel for the Class 3A state championship.
As the final seconds ticked away and players drenched Beebe, the Aurora Christian fans chanted "For Him."
Just a few short months ago, the parents in that crowd faced the uncertainty of not knowing where their sons would go to school with rumors about Aurora Christian closing under considerable financial problems.
Doug Roberts is one of those parents. He has two sons Grayson and Noah who are starting wide receivers on this year's team, and his older son Jordan quarterbacked the 2008 Eagles to second place in Class 4A.
"Most people would just look at it as a human being but God has just blessed the school in a tremendous way and he uses this program and this school to make these boys better men in the world," Doug Roberts said. "That is what they are going to leave and know. Ten years from now when they are dads and husbands they will remember this. It's not going to be so much the state championship as much as when times get tough you just have to keep believing and don't quit."
Times certainly were tough this summer. Aurora Christian faced a lawsuit from Fifth Third Bank and mounting financial troubles. The school's leaders worked to find a solution to be able to keep their doors open at its shiny new campus off Sullivan Road on the west side of Aurora.
It wasn't until June 30th that the school announced it would be back at Sullivan this year. Nearly five months to the day later, they are state champs.
Faith. The Eagles certainly needed it. And they've got it.
"I knew it was all in God's control," linebacker Ryan McQuade said. "If it was in God's will the school closed, then the school closed. If it was it would stay open, then it would stay open. And it obviously stayed open which was God's blessing."
"We had no doubt," senior running back and safety Brandon Mayes said. "We just kept praying and kept believing in Jesus that the school would be back open. He answered our prayers. He is faithful. We believe so much that He would open up our school."
While the school's numbers dropped to 740 students in prekindergarten through 12th grade last year from 900 in 2009, the entire football team stayed. And worked. Even in those June days when the future was uncertain.
"The kids never missed a (summer) practice," Doug Roberts said. "They showed up, they lifted weights, they did what Don wanted them to do. They didn't care what people said, they didn't care what the blogs said, they didn't care what Facebook said. They just stayed focused on what Don wanted them to do."
With Friday's win, the Eagles have followed in Driscoll's footsteps as a football state champion. They don't want to follow the former Addison school in having to close.
Ironically, it was the Eagles who ended Driscoll's run of seven straight state championships when they beat them in the 2008 playoffs. And Aurora Christian's future is up in the air. In a story this fall, Aurora Christian Superintendent Colleen House said a decision about next year will be reached before the start of the second semester.
Back on June 30th, House wrote parents: "We have all endured quite a bit of stress over the last few months, but we have grown in our faith! ... I truly believe that ACS is a family. We're not perfect, but we love each other through the good and the bad times."
The good times were plentiful all fall. Only Montini stood between the 13-1 Eagles and perfection as Beebe led his program to a state championship in his eighth year as coach.
Aurora Christian's 2008 team nearly brought back the city's first state champion. Marmion had a shot last year in Class 6A but finished second.
The Eagles didn't let their second chance slip away. Unlike last week's semifinal win over Tolono when they fell behind 14-0, the Eagles dominated from the third play Maddie's 72-yard touchdown run on.
"We knew coming into the game no one from Aurora has won it and that was our goal to bring back a state trophy," running back and linebacker Ryan Suttle said.
"No one can ever take that away from us," wide receiver Cory Windle said. "Fifty years from now they can think back to the 2011 Aurora Christian team, they won it for the first time."
More adversity struck the Eagles during the year. Injuries hit them hard including losing a pair of key seniors in lineman R.J. Morris and linebacker Mitch Holtz.
While the electrifying offense rightfully so gets much of the headlines, it might have been Aurora Christian's defense that personified the never-give-up attitude Friday. Eight times in the first half Mt. Carmel ran plays inside the Eagles' 10-yard line. Eight times Aurora Christian kept Mt. Carmel out of the end zone.
Whenever the Eagles face a short-yardage situation, their sidelines and fans start chanting "Stone Wall."
"We got that from the movie 'Facing the Giants,'" McQuade explained. "We never quit. Every down we just gave it all. When times were tough, we just never gave up."
While McQuade was talking about their goal-line stands, his words as easily could sum up the school's journey these past few months.
Besides being a darn good football team, a state champion football team, the Eagles also showed what a little or make that a lot of faith can do.