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Cardinal Football Takes Second! C/O Emily Tropp @ RRSTAR

November 27, 2010
Stillman Valley High School

All Stillman Valley wanted was seven measly yards. Just seven more yards, and then the Cardinals would try for a game-winning field goal.

But seven yards is a lot to ask in a state championship football game. In trying to get from the 22- to the 15-yard line, Carthage Illini West got in the way.

"With the wind, we knew we had to get a little bit closer for a field goal opportunity," Stillman Valley coach Mike Lalor said about his final drive of the game, which ended in an interception by Illini West with 28 seconds remaining. "We had no timeouts left and 30-some seconds and were just trying to get the ball out to the edge and get out of bounds. (Illini West senior Ser Whitaker) made a great play on it.

"I'd certainly like to have that one back."

Stillman Valley's hopes of winning its fifth state title in 12 years ended with a 22-20 loss to Illini West in the Class 3A title game at Champaign's Memorial Stadium. Trailing by two points, the defending champion Cardinals had the ball and the momentum as they drove downfield in the closing seconds to try to set up a field goal attempt by senior Isaac Robert. But the Chargers (14-0) ended the game with Whitaker's interception, leaving the Cardinals stunned and saddened by how close they almost came to repeating.

"I knew it was all on them," Whitaker said. "The clock was running down and they had to score, so I knew all the pressure was on them."

The way the game ended was heartbreaking for Stillman Valley (13-1), especially after the way the Cardinals had fought back to have a shot at winning the game.

Stillman Valley started the game with two fumbles for a loss and five penalties for 35 yards in the first two quarters. Other than Adam Cox's 68-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, Illini West owned the first half and led 8-6 at the break.

"It was unfortunate," Lalor said. "We didn't play really sharp there, and we probably could have had a couple of scores on the board, and we didn't. In a game of this magnitude it usually comes back and gets you, and it certainly did today."

Stillman Valley took its only lead of the game at the end of the third quarter on a 4-yard run by Eric Boettcher, but the Cardinals' 14-8 lead lasted only a few minutes.
Illini West scored two straight touchdowns on a 23-yard run by Drake Schmudlach and a 45-yard run by Whitaker.

The conversion run after Whitaker's touchdown failed, keeping Stillman Valley within one touchdown of the Chargers.

Stillman Valley's Nate Bond then followed the Chargers' last scoring drive with a 98-yard kickoff return, which is an IHSA record for longest kickoff return for a touchdown in state finals history. But the conversion attempt failed, and Illini West maintained a two-point lead.

The Cardinals had two more attempts to score, but the Cardinals went 3-and-out on their next drive, and their final drive ended in the interception.

"Everything was going our way on that last drive," Cox said. "We had just had two completions right in a row, and (Whitaker) just made a great play. (Stillman Valley quarterback Dane Green) didn't do anything wrong, he just made a great break on that ball.

"The fumbles early, we didn't want those. But we came back and fought, and everybody showed we had guts and never quit on each other. I couldn't ask for anything else."

Cox finished with 134 yards and one touchdown on 19 carries. He said he was about 80 percent in the game after spraining his ankle in Stillman Valley's quarterfinal win against Aurora Christian.

This was Stillman Valley's fifth state championship appearance since 1999 and first loss.

"I think it was a great high school ballgame," Lalor said. "I'd obviously love to be on the other end. But our kids never quit. I wish things would have turned out a bit differently in the end, but we showed we are champs and we never quit.

"It's been a fantastic ride."

-- Emily Tropp, rrstar.com

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