Cary-Grove claims Class 6A football championship
CHAMPAIGN -- It is a drive Cary-Grove football fans will talk about for generations.
The Trojans won the second state title in program history with a 35-13 victory over Crete-Monee at Memorial Field on Saturday, thanks largely to a march that epitomizes its patient, methodical triple-option offense.
Cary-Grove already led the Class 6A championship game 22-13 when the defense stopped Crete-Monee's opening drive of the second half on downs at the 10-yard line.
The Trojans took possession with 9:48 left in the third quarter and played keep away for the next 11:19.
The initial goal, Cary-Grove coach Brad Seaburg said, was to pick up a first down or two so the his team didn't have to punt into the wind. The mindset changed once senior Danny Daigle rushed for 8 yards to midfield to pick up another first down, the third of eight first downs during the drive.
"When you really start seeing some success with some of the plays that we were running, in the back of your mind you're thinking, 'Let's kind of keep this going here,'" Seaburg said.
No. 1 Cary-Grove (14-0) eventually covered 90 yards in 20 plays and cashed in on fourth-and-3 from the Crete-Monee 4-yard line. Senior quarterback Ben McDonald threw a fade pass to 6-foot-3 split end Quinn Priester, who made the touchdown catch over a defender.
"We knew going into this that they were able to sustain drives," Crete-Monee coach John Konecki said. "It wasn't a lack of effort on our kids parts or our coaches' parts. They did a fantastic job. It was frustrating. Obviously, you can't score when you don't have the ball."
The longest gain of the epic drive was a 14-yard rush by Daigle to the Warriors' 20-yard line. For No. 11 Crete-Monee (10-4), it felt like death by a thousand cuts.
"It was just three yards, three yards, three yards," all-state defensive lineman Deion Harry said. "That's what they wanted on offense and we couldn't stop it."
The next drive by the Warriors was quashed at midfield, and the Trojans all but sealed the win by moving 42 yards the other way in 11 plays to take a 22-point lead with 2:01 remaining. McDonald kept the ball on the last six plays of that drive, covering 25 yards, including his 4-yard touchdown run.
The Trojans doused their eighth-year coach with the celebratory water bucket as the clock expired on the program's first Class 6A title since 2009. It was the first state championship for Seaburg in his third try. He guided Cary-Grove to runner-up finishes in 2012 and 2014.
"I don't know if it's really hit me yet other than the cold from the water," a smiling Seaburg said. "Every time you go (downstate), the kids are great. Every group we've had has been outstanding. This group was just able to make plays at really key times. They really did. It certainly is a sense of accomplishment, but it's great having guys like this that buy into what we want and just work as hard as they can for our coaching staff."
The Trojans outgained the Warriors 346 total yards to 290. Cary-Grove's defense limited Crete-Monee to 13 points -- its lowest output since a season-opening loss to Lincoln-Way East -- and 91 rushing yards. Cary-Grove defensive back Luke Eleftheriou registered a team-best 6 tackles, including a sack, and Jacob DiMatteo and Arik Mistak also notched sacks.
Cary-Grove's opening possession didn't end well after a fumble at the Crete-Monee 28-yard line. The Trojans made up for it on their next possession by driving 78 yards in 13 plays. Junior fullback Blake Skol, who fumbled earlier, staked Cary-Grove to its first lead with a 13-yard touchdown run up the middle. Nathan Splitt's extra point made it 7-0 with 2:34 left in the first quarter. That scoring drive remained alive when another Cary-Grove fumble was negated by an official's inadvertent whistle, meaning the down had to be replayed by rule.
Crete-Monee tied the game on its next possession by marching 71 yards in 7 plays. Ronald Carroll, Jr. provided the finishing touch: a 37-yard run on which he picked up downfield blocks from wide receiver Jamal Safo and offensive lineman Jesus Ambriz.
Cary-Grove regained the lead right away with a bold call. The Trojans had marched 52 yards in 10 plays but faced fourth-and-7 at the Crete-Monee 7.
After a timeout to discuss strategy, McDonald faked a pitch to the left, instead rolled to his right and zipped a scoring strike to a wide-open Zach Perrone beneath the goal post. The first two options on the play were for McDonald to keep it or throw to Priester on the perimeter.
"I saw them covering Quinn and I thought it would just be a jump ball to Quinn," McDonald said, "but then I saw Zach Perrone there in the back of the end zone, just sitting there, wide open."
"Sometimes it isn't exactly how you draw it up, but it comes back to the kids," Seaburg said. "The kids made plays and got it done."
The Warriors got the ball back with 1:52 left and ran the two-minute drill to perfection, covering 67 yards in 9 plays. Quarterback Trayvon Rudolph finished it off by hitting 6-foot-3 senior receiver Ricky Johnson inside the front pylon for a touchdown to pull within 22-13 at halftime.
However, the Trojans imposed their will in the second half and went on to hoist the championship trophy.
"It's something I've been looking forward to for a really long time, ever since I was a little kid," Skol said. "It feels amazing knowing that we are only the second team to go 14-0."