WINCHESTER - Before the season, the GCMS football team chose “Earn It” as their slogan.
Until now, they hadn’t had to use it much.
Eight straight blowouts, an undefeated record and a relentless defense that eased their way to five straight shutouts made things look easy.
This time, the Falcons earned every inch.
GCMS (11-0) tied the school win record and advanced to the Elite Eight with a 20-8 victory at West Central on Saturday.
And for the first time in two months, it took some adversity to get the job done.
Boasting a huge front line, the Cougars were able to limit the long runs GCMS is accustomed to, while opening a few holes for themselves early on.
After a quick three-and-out by the Falcons, West Central marched 70 yards for a score and an 8-0 lead on their first possession, to give GCMS their first deficit since week two.
The Falcons responded well, as the Cougars struggled to move the ball the rest of the game, while GCMS was able to make just enough plays to stretch a lead.
Nick Meunier slipped free for a 45-yard touchdown on the team’s second drive, and Keegan Allen found James Fairfield for the two-point conversion to tie it up at 8.
Zach Johnson punched in a 13-yard touchdown run on third-and-eight, while dragging a few defenders with him.
Then Austin Allen recovered a fumble to send GCMS into halftime up 14-8.
In the locker room, the Falcon seniors reflected on the realization that letting this one slip away meant the end of a promising season and stellar career.
They hadn’t had to play much in the second half of most games all season. And now they’d have to step up big to even see another half.
It was “gut check time,” as coaches often say, and the Falcon boys were ready.
The squad opened the second half with a three-and-out defensive stance; then Levi Davis and Sam Baillie sprinted in to block the punt.
Sophomore Luke Freehill picked it up to put GCMS in scoring position. Meunier scored and made it 20-8 with 7:39 left in the third quarter.
And then things got interesting.
A West Central player collided with Falcon assistant coach, Todd McNutt, and a double penalty was called—one against the Cougar player for the collision, and one against a Falcon player.
When head coach Mike Allen defended his players, another flag was thrown.
“I felt like we had several calls go against us, some questionable calls, and I was standing up for our kids,” Allen said. “I apologized to the team for getting it, but you have to stand up for your team.”
The intensity of the game was at its peak, and then a memorable moment occurred.
As the officials called a referee timeout to talk things out with the coaches, a roar of support from the Falcon faithful started to rise.
Players were hyped. Fans were hyped, and the years of brotherhood among this senior-led group had hit a pinnacle.
“That (moment) was the biggest pump up of the game,” Falcon senior captain Tristan Smith said afterward. “I knew if we made a stop right there that we had the game in our hands.”
This moment proved crucial, as the previous drives lacked the enthusiasm needed to close out an elimination game.
“I don’t know if we were really overly excited at times and realized what was on the line,” Allen said. “Once they got the juices flowing and feeling pretty good, and the crowd got into it, that was a special moment.”
GCMS caused a turnover on the next three Cougar drives, culminating in a shoulder-pad popping, blindsided sack by Sam Baillie.
The hit sent the ball flying and ended in a Falcon fumble recovery to secure the win.
“That’s the most intense game I’ve ever been in,” Tristan Smith said. “As you can tell, I’ve pretty much lost my voice.”
With the mental toughness it takes to make deep playoff runs, Allen and the rest of the squad felt the adversity was a blessing.
“We’ve been able to win big for several games, it was nice to be able to face some adversity and see how our team would react to it,” Allen said. “And they reacted very well. They pulled together; they came together as a team even more than they were before. They weren’t going to let each other down.”
Despite the almost three hour journey, the Falcon crowd was as big as West Central’s on Saturday, and the Falcon coaches and players agreed that Saturday's game felt like a home game.
Allen and the team appreciated the fan’s support .
The win set up a home match against fellow undefeated foe Arcola on Saturday in Gibson City at 2 p.m.
HOIC member LeRoy upset Tuscola, making GCMS the top seed in the south bracket.
For this reason, the Falcons will host the semifinal game if they defeat Arcola.
Filling in for the injured Connor Bowen, Luke Freehill was in on 16 tackles to go with his fumble recovery.
Key-Shawn Girkin had 14 tackles, while Tristan Smith and James Fairfield had 12 and 13, respectively.
Tucker Cribbett accounted for 12 tackles, and Baillie added 12 tackles along with his sack and forced fumble.
Mitch McNutt added a 14-yard catch and run for the only reception that wasn't on an extra point conversion.
Nick Meunier finished with 166 rushing yards on 22 carries.