STERLING — The Sterling Newman High School football team forced Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley to bring out its best, which proved good enough to secure a 27-12 victory in a Class 2A quarterfinal playoff game at Roscoe Eades Stadium on Saturday.
The reigning state champion Falcons ignored 18-degree wind chill to notch their 26th straight victory and improve to 12-0 ahead of next week’s semifinal against No. 3 seed Eastland-Pearl City (12-0) at Lanark.
Five-time state champion Newman, which fell at GCMS 14-8 in last year’s semifinals, finished 10-2. The No. 5-seeded Comets, ranked No. 5 in the Associated Press state poll, suffered their only other loss to Orion, 20-17.
“We could not be more proud of the way our kids played tonight,” said GCMS coach Mike Allen, whose team came in ranked No. 2 in the AP state poll. “Our defense just played amazing tonight with two TDs.
“On offense, we didn’t play our best game, but we did some things that we had to do and that’s a compliment to Sterling Newman’s defense.”
The Falcons’ first and last touchdowns of the second half were an 83-yard fumble return by Jared Trantina to make it 10-0 and a 40-yard interception return by Austin Spiller to end the scoring with 1:02 left.
“We made some major mistakes and they took advantage of them,” said Newman coach Mike Papoccia, whose team had four turnovers. “They got us where we don’t like to play (in passing situations). That’s a tribute to them.
“They’ve got a heck of a defense and they know what to do with the ball. They’ve got a lot of weapons. They were better than us pure and simple. That kicker (Ben Freehill), he’s a gem. He can score from a lot of places.”
GCMS quarterback Nathan Garard completed 10 of 15 passes for 152 yards and a 52-yard touchdown to freshman Aidan Laughery to make it 20-6 late in the third quarter. Garard tied the school record for career TD passes with 28.
“Coming into the season, he was very humble and he knew his spot,” Garard said of Laughery. “He just worked his way up through the ranks.
“We knew Sterling Newman was going to be a disciplined, strong team. We are, too. We had to match their intensity.”
Garard’s favorite target was Ryland Holt, who had four catches for 70 yards. Laughery had three catches for 61 yards while Bryce Barnes grabbed three passes for 27.
Trantina rushed 19 times for 44 yards. He credited Lane Short for forcing the fumble he returned 83 yards. It was his second fumble return for a TD this season.
“I just saw it and took off,” Trantina said. “Coach Augspurger gives us a great opportunity to win. Our guys come out and just do what they’re supposed to do.”
Newman answered Trantina’s touchdown with a 99-yard kickoff return for a TD by Conner McBride to make it 10-6.
“We broke down,” Allen said. “We didn’t stay in alleys. Our kids didn’t panic. That’s been our philosophy for two years…relax and play football.”
Newman’s Brycen Bartel completed 6 of 18 passes for 98 yards including a 27-yard TD pass to McBride to pull within 20-12 with 6:02 left. Bartel was also intercepted by Short.
Luke Olson rushed eight times for 52 yards while Chase Graham added 44 yards on eight carries.
In the first half, Freehill attempted three field goals for GCMS, sandwiching a 20-yarder in between misses from 42 and 54 to leave the Falcons in front, 3-0.
In the third quarter, Freehill’s 28-yard field goal put GCMS up, 13-6. He has received a scholarship offers from Illinois State and Western Illinois.
The Falcons finished with 229 total yards to 264 for Newman. In the first half, the Comets were limited to three punts before Nate Ahlers’ 36-yard field goal attempt was blocked.
“Coach (Chad) Augspurger is just an incredible defensive coordinator,” Allen said. “He had a scheme and our kids executed it.”
For the season, GCMS has scored 10 defensive touchdowns.
“It takes a lot of stress off,” Allen said.