November 23 – The Maroa-Forsyth High School football team got off to an encouraging start in Friday’s IHSA Class 2A state championship game. But when the Trojans couldn’t seize on some critical opportunities, their shot at revenge on Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley vanished.
Shut out in the second half, Maroa settled for its third straight runner-up finish and fourth in five years as the Falcons pulled away in the fourth quarter to secure a 35-16 victory at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.
“I’m really proud of our kids; they battled a great team today,” said Trojans coach Josh Jostes, whose squad finished with a 13-1 record while GCMS (14-0) extended its winning streak to 28 with a second straight championship after last year’s 38-32 win over the Trojans.
“That score is no indication of how close that game really was,” said GCMS coach Mike Allen, who lauded Maroa-Forsyth as “a heck of a program” for reaching the title game eight times over the past 13 seasons.
Jostes called the Trojans’ defense and special teams “outstanding,” but found fault with the offensive coordinator – himself.
“I have a handful of plays I’d like to have back,” said Jostes, whose team outgained GCMS 407-303 as Gavin Clifton ran for 117 yards and quarterback Ian Benner added 101 yards on the ground and 142 through the air. “We did some good things on offense. We just didn’t finish the drives.”
Those good things on offense showed up early. GCMS had not given up any first-quarter points all season, but the Trojans moved with relative ease. A 49-yard pass from Benner to Kadinn Morris on Maroa’s second snap of the game led to a 10-yard Drew Hicks TD catch for a 7-0 lead.
GCMS answered with a 1-yard TD run by Jared Trantina that capped a drive aided by a third-down pass interference call. But the Trojans struck back quickly, going 63 yards in less than two minutes.
A long Benner run moved Maroa across midfield right away, with a personal foul against the Falcons tacked on the end. That led to Hicks’ second TD catch, an 8-yard toss from Benner that made it 14-7 with 1:48 left in the quarter.
The Trojans found themselves in prime position again when Zac Clifton blocked a GCMS punt and Wade Jostens recovered at the Falcon 15. But Benner was sacked for a loss of 15 on first down and Maroa squandered the opportunity by turning the ball over on downs.
That led to a 77-yard drive by the Falcons, with Trantina punching it in from the 1 to tie it at 14-all. Then momentum shifted as GCMS recovered a fumble on the next snap and Trantina plowed through multiple defenders on the following play for a 13-yard TD run that gave the Falcons their first lead at 21-14.
Still, Maroa marched into striking distance with the help of a highlight-reel, leaping one-handed catch by Morris. However, Benner’s fourth-down pass into the end zone appeared to be hauled in by Max Davenport but as he hit the ground the ball bounced up into the arms of Aidan Laughery.
“I was just trying to go up and make a play on the ball. I got hit and I don’t really know what happened after that,” said Davenport. “I wasn’t open on my original route, so I had to scramble out. I got open, I just couldn’t come down with it.”
Penalties backed GCMS up inside its own 10 on the next series and Johnny Luttrell came up with the Trojans’ second blocked punt of the half, with the ball rolling out of the side of the end zone for a safety that pulled Maroa within 21-16 at halftime.
“We had a lot of confidence coming into the game. We scored those first two touchdowns and I feel like we settled a little bit,” said Morris, who finished with five catches for 78 yards. “We got comfortable and every time you get comfortable stuff never goes your way. You always have to be playing like you’re playing from behind and at that time we weren’t.”
After the action-packed first half, the defenses took the upper hand after intermission. Neither team scored in the third quarter, with Maroa unable to capitalize on another botched GCMS punt when Benner was bottled up on a fourth-down sneak from the Falcon 20.
The Trojans got the ball back after a defensive stop and reeled off a 13-play drive, marching to the GCMS 10 on a screen pass to Hicks. But on fourth-and-goal Benner was sacked for a big loss by Bryce Barnes, Maroa’s nemesis who caught the winning TD in last year’s contest.
The Falcons’ drive stalled at the Maroa 40, but Ben Freehill atoned for his previous punting miscues with a kick that Daniel Jones downed at the 1-yard line and that’s when things unraveled for the Trojans. GCMS linebacker Austin Spiller stepped in front of Benner’s third-down pass over the middle and returned it 18 yards for a touchdown that pushed the margin to 28-16.
“Their middle linebacker got a great read and got underneath the ball. Ian threw to a guy that was open, but their middle linebacker did a great job,” said Jostes. “You don’t want to be third-and-long on the 1-yard line very often, so we were scrambling there.”
On the ensuing kickoff, Maroa attempted some razzle dazzle with a reverse handoff and lateral, but the backwards toss missed the mark and the Falcons’ Layne Harden pounced on the loose ball in the end zone to make put the game completely out of reach.
“We’re playing to win the ballgame and down 12 with 4½ minutes to go, you’ve got to make something happen. We didn’t execute obviously real well,” said Jostes.
“They’re really good defensively, I mean really good. We just scored more points on them than anyone has all season, and it still wasn’t very much.”