By BRANDON LaCHANCE
MONMOUTH – The football Gods were obviously in attendance at the Illinois 8-Man Football Championship on Nov. 18 at Monmouth College.
The snowy, cold, blistery weather conditions made the state title feel important. Real.
Fans screaming, cheering from both the Amboy-LaMoille-Ohio and Biggsville West Central sidelines and bleachers gave the support and amplified every yard gained on the field.
Playing hard was an understatement as every player on the field felt the history they were making and showed everyone under the lights and watching on live streams.
For the Clippers, they have no reason to be upset about falling in the state championship, 44-36, to the Heat.
“They don't have any reason to hang their heads. They played a phenomenal game. I'm proud of them,” ALO coach Scott Payne said. “Those two turnovers (an interception returned for a touchdown and a red zone fumble) in the second quarter is what hurt us. In Week 9, they beat us 68-30 and we only lost by eight (Friday). It shows the resiliency of these kids. I'm so proud of them.
“I think the reason it was a closer game was the situation of this game. This was a state championship. The kids got up more for it. They wanted it so bad. I feel bad for them, but they still had a great season and I'm still proud of them. I'm at a loss for words.”
The Clippers took the Week 9 loss to West Central as motivation into the championship.
At first, West Central tried to extinguish the extra fire quickly.
The Heat scored at the 6:28 mark in the first quarter on a 46-yard run from all-state running back Kaiden Droste.
After West Central captured an onside kick, Droste scored again at 4:03 on an 11-yard run to give the Heat a 16-0 lead after the first frame.
ALO turned its zero to an eight at 8:13 in the second quarter when senior quarterback Tucker Lindenmeyer found all-state receiver (for the second consecutive year), Brennan Blaine, for a 6-yard touchdown reception before Lindemeyer ran in the two-point conversion.
“Tucker played a great game. This was his last high school football game,” said Payne of his only senior who was 5-of-10 for 91 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception. “I told him before the game, 'This is your last high school game that you're ever going to play. Lay it all on the line.' And he did.
“He went out there and played his butt off. He did some really great things for us. He's really going to be missed.”
After Droste scored his third of four touchdowns in the game on an 8-yeard gainer, Tucker ran in a 7-yard score to cut the Heat lead to 22-16.
The Clippers’ touchdown was followed by an onside kick recovery. However, the first play of the drive saw Droste intercept Lindenmeyer and return it 63 yards to make the score 28-16 at halftime.
ALO made some defensive adjustments at halftime and limited the West Central rushing attack in the second hal.
“Defensively, we moved the line around a little bit. We tried to slow down their trap game and their option game,” Payne said. “We started blitzing some linebackers some more. The kids stepped up and started making some plays. That's what we needed to do.”
The Heat scored first in the third quarter at the 10:37 mark on a 1-yard quarterback keeper by senior Mason Carnes to make the score 36-16.
Then the Clippers started to sail as they scored the next two touchdowns to cut the Heat lead to 36-30.
First, Lindenmeyer found Blaine (who had five catches for 91 yards in the game) for a 23-yard touchdown (junior Landon Whelchel ran in the two-point conversion) and sophomore Quinn Leffelman (59 yards on 15 carries in the game) found the end zone on a 4-yard carry.
With a 36-30 deficit heading into the fourth quarter, the Clippers’ defense continued to tighten at the line, but the Heat were able to claw away at first downs with three or four yards a carry.
At the 9:18 mark in the final quarter, Carnes capped off a 12-play drive that started in the third quarter with another 1-yard rushing touchdown to take a 44-30 advantage over the Clippers.
ALO wasn't done turning the lights on the scoreboard as Whelchel (finished with 15 carries for 68 yards) crossed the end zone at 2:52 in the fourth on a 7-yard carry to cut the deficit to 44-36.
West Central called three plays, picked up a first down, and then took three knees to end the Clippers’ season.
Although a state title wasn't won, Payne and the Clippers know the type of season they just added to the already thick history books.
Having all players on the roster except one returning, they know they have the potential to return to the state championship next season.
“I know they'll put in the work,” Payne said. “One of the assistant coaches told them, 'Remember this feeling. Remember this feeling when you don't want to lift weights in the weight room. Remember this feeling when you don't want to run.' It was a great message to send to the kids.”