Aurora Christian takes fifth win against Wheaton Academy
Aurora Christian football coach Dave Beebe had a great idea.
"I tell you what," he said, "they ought to charge double for these games against Wheaton Academy."
For the second year in a row, it came down to the wire -- this year with huge playoff ramifications.
In a game between 4-4 teams with the winner gaining playoff consideration and the loser likely eliminated, Aurora Christian rallied from an early, 2-touchdown deficit to beat Wheaton Academy 28-21 on Friday in West Chicago.
Eagles quarterback Ethan Hampton ran for 83 yards with touchdown runs of 17 and 5 yards, and completed 17 of 31 passes for 252 yards and 2 touchdown passes to 6-foot-4 receiver J.P. Jira, who caught 10 passes for 168 yards.
"Hat's off to him," Wheaton Academy coach Brad Thornton said of Hampton. "He was the best player on the field tonight."
Aurora Christian (5-4, 2-4 Metro Suburban Blue) came in with 35 playoff points, the combined wins by its opponents. Those gained Friday should be sufficient for the Eagles to make their third straight playoff appearance.
"This game is different from last year because we had to win this to make playoffs," said Hampton, alluding to Aurora Christian's 34-33 Week 9 win in 2018. "We really showed up today. We've been looking for that spark all season. I think we got some good momentum going into the playoffs."
Wheaton Academy (4-5, 1-5) owned play early, capitalizing on Peter Johanik's strip sack to take a 7-0 lead on Stephen Garner's 6-yard run and Lars Cassel's kick. The Warriors forced a three-and-out then moved 63 yards to lead 14-0 on David Dorn's 5-yard touchdown pass to tight end Christian Pares.
Aurora Christian flipped the script with 20 unanswered points. Having the height advantage on the perimeter, Jira scored on a 33-yard fly pattern, and with 1:15 before halftime caught a quick, 7-yard touchdown pass to tie 14-14 at halftime. Hampton went 5 for 5 for 83 yards of that 87-yard scoring drive.
"We knew coming in here that it's their senior night, that they're going to play hard. We knew we had to go up and beyond their level and take it to them," said Aurora Christian linebacker Jack Certa, who decked Dorn several times.
Following a 41-yard completion to Danny New, Hampton scored on a 17-yard run for an Eagles 20-14 third-quarter lead. Wheaton Academy quickly responded. Christian Carstens' 38-yard kickoff return put the Warriors in good shape, and Garner's 4-yard touchdown run and Cassel's kick earned a 21-20 lead with 5:28 left in the third quarter.
"It was a challenge," said Garner, who gained 72 yards on 22 carries. "Coming in we knew it was going to be a dogfight and go down to the last second. We end up with the 'L,' but we hope to just be better next year."
Possession switched four times until Hampton capped an 8-play drive with a 5-yard touchdown run, then converted a 2-point conversion for a 28-21 Eagles lead with 9:31 left to play.
Despite Dorn leading the offense to midfield in the last minute, Wheaton Academy couldn't encroach farther than Aurora Christian's 34-yard line thereafter.
"We lost to a good Aurora Christian team," Thornton said. "Kind of similar to the story last week (a 20-19 loss to Riverside-Brookfield), we didn't execute like we needed to in the second half."
"Our kids grew up tonight," Beebe said. "I'm sitting with nine seconds left in the clock and I'm just screaming, saying, 'We've been waiting for this moment for nine weeks, where were could finally close the door on somebody, and take that next step of maturity.'
"We have so many young kids, and they're talented and the play hard, but they don't have a ton of experience. They don't have that killer instinct. They're getting there, and tonight was a big step in that direction."