The St. Louis U. High football team (6-3, 3-1) conquered Jesuit rival DeSmet for the first time in four years last Friday night. With contributions from likely and unlikely sources, and maybe even some help from above, SLUH emerged victorious at DeSmet 38-31 in a game riddled with subplots, tension, and finally heroics.
Down 28-21 in the middle of the fourth quarter, the Jr. Bill offense took the field, huddled in their own end zone, and stared across the 99 yards that lay between victory and defeat. The SLUH football team faced one of those defining moments that characterizes a team.
Said senior quarterback Trevor McDonagh, “On our own 1-yard line all I was thinking was protect the ball. A turnover there would’ve killed us.”
The narrative begins back in the first quarter though, where the Jr. Bills started out about as well as they could have. In the first minute of the game McDonagh hit senior receiver Stefan Sansone deep for a 43-yard touchdown.
DeSmet answered with a touchdown from senior standout running back KeVonn Mabon late in the first quarter. Mabon churned through the SLUH defense during much of the first three quarters.
SLUH again marched the ball down the field. On fourth and long in DeSmet territory, stuck in no man’s land between punting and kicking a field goal, head coach Gary Kornfeld decided to go for it. McDonagh dropped back and lofted the ball towards the corner of the end zone where Sansone beat two Spartans in the air for the touchdown.
SLUH, however, would not score again till the fourth quarter. The Spartans rallied to take a two-touchdown lead behind the running of Mabon and the renowned Oklahoma commit Durron Neal.
Early in the fourth quarter, inside the red zone, Kornfeld again decided to go for it on fourth down. Down 14 points, the Jr. Bills could only cut the score to a one-possession game with a touchdown. McDonagh slid through the pocket and fired short to senior tailback Terek Hawkins, who darted through the gaping central hole in the Spartan defense for SLUH’s second touchdown on fourth down.
SLUH put its fate in the hands of its defense on the next possession. The defense had struggled against the grinding style of Mabon and the explosiveness of Neal from DeSmet’s Wildcat offense. On this drive, though, the Spartans went back to their more conventional offense. After making it just past midfield, the Spartans faced a key third down. The Jr. Bills came up and stopped them short. DeSmet punted to the 1-yard line.
Then the real magic began.
Senior playmaker Cameron Stubbs said, “While looking at the distance to the end zone, we all knew that we had to execute our plays perfectly to tie the game, but we also all knew that we were capable of getting it done. Before we left the huddle, someone said, ‘This is when championship teams step up and make big plays.’”
After two QB sneaks for a first down, the Jr. Bills went for some trickery. Stubbs lined up at quarterback and threw the ball out to McDonagh wide, hoping to connect with senior Mitch Klug deep over the middle. The play fell to shambles when McDonagh was ambushed by the Spartan defensive end several yards behind the line of scrimmage. But McDonagh spun away from his ambusher near the goal line and scampered for a 5-yard gain.
On third and 5, McDonagh took his drop, then broke to his right, avoiding the DeSmet pass rush. Just as a DeSmet defender caught him from behind, McDonagh spun the ball towards Klug. The ball hung in the air. Neal, playing bump and run at corner, tipped the lofted pass, but Klug was there diving for another Jr. Bill first down.
With a little more than five minutes left in the game and facing a critical third and 8 from the 30, McDonagh took the next snap and rolled to his left. Sliding away from a DeSmet defender, McDonagh lofted the ball over the second level of Spartans into the waiting arms of sophomore Raymond Wingo.
Wingo took the pass and glided diagonally from the left hash away from the Spartans and across the field. The Spartans were in slow motion, except Neal. Neal, a corner on defense, got an angle on Wingo and dragged him down at DeSmet’s 22-yard line. The play went for 58 yards.
“He’s really quick and made things happen and that’s why he’s been starting at corner since day one as a sophomore,” said Kornfeld of Wingo.
With DeSmet gassed and beleaguered and only 4:40 left, McDonagh hit Stubbs up the seam for the game tying touchdown with 4:50 left.
DeSmet fought back. The Spartans drove down the field deep into SLUH territory. They tossed a fade to Neal, who had hauled in a touchdown over two SLUH defenders in the second quarter. The ball was slightly under-thrown though, and Stubbs, draped just under Neal, came up with the pick. Regulation ended, and overtime began.
High school overtime works exactly the same way as overtime in college football. Each team gets one possession from the opponent’s 25-yard line. The team that scores the most points in that possession wins. If they tie, they simply go to a second round.
DeSmet took the field without Neal, who was banged up after four quarters of collisions against the SLUH defense. Without their star and catalyst, the Spartans actually lost yards. They were saved by kicker David Rudolph as he booted a 43-yard field goal that narrowly cleared the uprights, much to SLUH’s dismay of the densely packed, senior-laden student section.
In the second overtime, DeSmet started first but failed to score any points. On SLUH’s first offensive play, McDonagh delved into the magic of the night and spun the ball 25-yards down the seam to a streaking, wide-open Stubbs for the victory. It was the same exact play that SLUH had tied the game on late in the fourth quarter. Somewhere, coach Mark Tychonievich smiled.
“Coach Chura said to me right as the game ended, ‘You know Coach T was watching over us tonight’ (DeSmet) was always a special game for Coach T,” said Kornfeld.
Finally, from the arm of McDonagh to the hands of Stubbs, the Jr. Bills had beaten DeSmet.
McDonagh played the finest game in his high school career last week, throwing for 424 yards and five touchdowns. He also mitigated the loss of senior right tackle and captain Bryan Mathews by sliding away from rushers and making plays on his feet, which he has struggled with at times in his career.
“That’s one thing that coach Mark (Kornfeld) has worked on with him is trying to be athletic and be a quarterback. He wanted him to use his feet, and he had to Friday night,” said Kornfeld. “I think you saw a heck of a quarterback Friday night. There’s no doubt about it.”
The Jr. Bills would not have emerged victorious without the revival of the defense in the fourth quarter. The SLUH defense actually wore down the DeSmet offense as the game went along, though the opposite usually happens in the game of football. Neal and Meban victimized SLUH through the first three quarters, but the tide turned in the fourth quarter.
Sansone said, “We realized that we need to play as one unit in order to stop those two. It was tough in the beginning, but we came together and shut it down towards the end when we needed to.”
Kornfeld said, “We’re chasing 14 in the fourth quarter. There’s a lot of other clubs that would have said this is too big a thing to overcome. Our guys didn’t. Our guys kept battling.”
Currently, SLUH sits atop its district. With a win against visiting Lindbergh, the Jr. Bills will clinch the top spot in their district and a home playoff game. Lindbergh sits at 6-3 and defeated the Jr. Bills last year. SLUH will honor the seniors and classmate Brendan Langford before the seniors take the field for the last time at 7 o’clock.
“It means a lot to all of the seniors. We have the BL stickers on our helmet for him (Langford), so we’ve been thinking about him all year, and he has definitely brought us some inspiration,” said McDonagh.
The Jr. Bills still look to move on from a thrilling win and build on the rising season.
Kornfeld said, “We had a great win. But you know what, we put all that behind us. After film on Monday, we put whatever we’ve done the past week behind us, good or bad.”
“We’ve come a long way since the beginning of the season. We have stayed together and haven’t given up at all. We’ve been talking about state since the summer and we believe we can get there. Just take it one game at a time,” said Sansone.