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St. Laurence outlasts Wheaton Academy, advances to first state title game since 1979

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By Tim Cronin
Correspondent

BURBANK – Many years from now, when the members of the 2023 St. Laurence Vikings possess a few gray hairs and perhaps a bit of a paunch, they’ll be able to regale listeners of their comeback season — one that followed a 3-6 campaign and which few outside of their locker room saw coming.

Whether those tales conclude with how they came from behind to beat Wheaton Academy 31-30 in double-overtime in the IHSA Class 4A semifinals might depend on what happens in the state championship game. St. Laurence (10-3) will meet unbeaten Rochester (13-0), scourge of 4A for the better part of two decades, at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 24 at Illinois State University’s Hancock Stadium.

It will be the Vikings’ third title game appearance and first since 1979. Their lone championship came in 5A in 1976.

But Nov. 18 at Kavanagh Stadium, they authored a tale that featured a quartet of comebacks — the last one which took the final 2:41 of regulation and finished with a field goal, assuring overtime — and finally, at the end of the second overtime, one big hand coming up from the line to swat away a kick that would have forced a third extra session.

The heroes? Start with the swatter, Cesar Chavez, whose right hand sported a welt nearly as big as his smile after he knocked down Ethan Head’s point-after attempt to assure St. Laurence a state final berth, setting off a long, loud celebration that carried over from the field to the parking lot to the school cafeteria.

Then, throw in all-state running back Aaron Ball, whose four rushing touchdowns and 160 yards on a 30-carry ledger were complemented by a 13-yard reception during the final drive of regulation.

And don’t forget quarterback Evan Les, whose modest 88 passing yards included a crucial 17-yard connection with Rob Francis on third-and-15 on the play before the pass to Ball. If Francis doesn’t haul that in, there probably isn’t a walk-through on Thanksgiving morning behind the school.

Those three seniors and a host of other players in their class and younger came through when it counted most to turn back the fifth-seeded Warriors. The Vikings overcame a pair of mid-game possessions that totaled 20 plays and ended with a fumble by Les and a 33-yard field-goal attempt by Colin Bagley that slid wide left.

“The seniors were my first recruiting class,” St. Laurence coach Adam Nissen said. “I said we were going to get to this point. A lot of people laughed back in 2019 at us.

“Here we are, a game away from winning it.”

And eager to do so on — as assistant coach Frank Lenti reminded the Vikings’ players — what will be a business trip.

“What do we want to do?” Lenti asked.

To which the players, who have heard the cue before, said in unison: “Get paid.”

Chavez, who transferred from St. Rita after his freshman year, recalled that he blocked five kicks as a sophomore. But varsity ball is different, with bigger linemen in the way. When Head’s line-shot kick came off his foot low, Chavez pounced.

“I just saw a vision,” he said. “I had to give up my body for my team. My hand hurts so bad (but) it doesn’t matter. We’re going to state now.”

Les, whose 11-of-17 reading was as vital as Chavez’ block and Ball’s grinding out yardage, was almost overcome with emotion as the crowd swirled around him.

“It’s an awesome feeling to go out there and say we’re going to do something, and do it,” Les said. “There’s still one obstacle left, but it’s not a better way to end your career on this beautiful field. I think we’re in a really good spot right now as a team. We treat every day as if it’s our last.”

Les said Ball’s consistency makes his job easy when he keeps the ball to run, “because there’s no one looking at me when I pull it.”

Ball all but blushed when he heard that, but his rushing yards were still the big ones. His big gainer of the day, 22 yards off right end, jump-started big drive that set up Bagley’s 37-yard field goal to tie the game with 17 seconds remaining in regulation.

“Changed the trajectory of the game,” Ball said. “We were playing behind them with no momentum. That gave us confidence.”

The Warriors led or were tied until Ball’s 4-yard plunge in the second overtime, thanks largely to Brandon Kiebles, whose 66- and 14-yard touchdown runs made it 7-0 and 14-7, respectively, and to all-state quarterback Brett Kasper, whose 8-of-12 for 61 yards included a fourth-and-3rd completion that moved the chains and led to Head’s 23-yard field goal for a 17-14 lead.

Then came the 12-play drive that culminated in Bagley’s game-tying field goal to force overtime.

In the first extra session, Giovanni Spinnelli and Ball exchanged touchdowns. Ball added his fourth of the night to open the second overtime with Bagley adding the point-after kick; and then, after Kasper snuck it in from the 1, came Chavez’s block.

It was the stuff — or swat — that dreams are made of.

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