LINCOLNSHIRE — One play. That was the difference between Stevenson playing for the Class 8A football championship and going home.
After Loyola — which beat the Patriots 15-14 in Saturday’s semifinal — scored a touchdown with 1:03 remaining in the fourth quarter, Stevenson led 14-13. The Ramblers did what everyone expected them to do — run out their special teams unit to attempt a game-tying extra point. Stevenson countered with its block unit, and Loyola called timeout.
That’s when the unexpected happened.
“They flipped it,” Stevenson coach Bill McNamara said of the Ramblers’ decision to go for two after the timeout. “So we put our defense on the field.”
Noticing the Ramblers had four receivers (quad formation) lined up to the left side of the field, the Patriots called a timeout to ensure they had their defense set. When play resumed, Loyola quarterback Jack Penn took the snap and scrambled to his left in the direction of his receivers, all of whom ran routes toward the end zone.
Stevenson senior Matt Morrissey, back in the lineup after missing two games with a sore hamstring, was the deepest Patriots defender. He was lined up on the receiver furthest inside (senior Donnel Haley), but behind Patriots junior linebacker Rory Koenig.
“My guy did a slant [toward the middle of the field],” Morrissey said. “I saw the quarterback roll out and his eyes [were] on a different receiver. I tried to break on the ball.”
Penn lofted a pass from just inside the 10-yard line. Loyola senior receiver Joe Joyce, who had lined up the furthest wide, slipped past Patriots defenders on a curl route. With Morrissey trailing, along with Patriots defenders Jason Vavrick and Ryan Mass around him, Joyce leaped into the air and snatched the ball, coming down with the reception and the go-ahead two points.
All that was left for Patriots defenders to do was watch in stunned disbelief as the Ramblers celebrated.
“I thought we had it. He threw the ball up and it just so happened someone came down with it,” said Mass, a senior. “It could have gone either way.”
If it had, it would have been Stevenson celebrating a likely trip to the state championship game. After the two-point conversion, a little more than a minute still remained on the clock. But going against the wind, Stevenson wasn’t able to muster a threat. When junior quarterback Willie Bourbon was intercepted with 20 seconds left, the game was over.
The two-point conversion play will be remembered for its sheer brazenness. But this was a game worthy of its importance, with momentum swings that left the capacity crowd gasping for air even as the chilling temperatures made breathing a difficult act.
“This is what it’s supposed to be like the week before Thanksgiving,” McNamara said of the sub-20 degree wind chills. “I’m so proud of the Patriot nation for coming out and supporting us and cheering hard.”
Stevenson players were still lingering in the locker room an hour after the game ended Saturday. What they wanted was a victory and a shot at a state championship. Instead, they got memories of a season that started with two losses and included 10 straight wins, a one-point defeat and friendships that will long outlast the painful ou
“I’ve never been around a team that cares so much not for the individual but for the team as a whole,” Bourbon said. “To be around it was something special.”