The Mercer County Golden Eagles defeated Althoff Catholic Friday 14-7 to capture the Class 2A state title.
"What a rush," said Golden Eagle head coach Nat Zunkel following the game. "It's a credit to the kids. They have worked hard all year. It was a process. We got better and better each week. We had consistency in our passing game. It was something that showed today."
"This is the best feeling ever," said fullback Zach Nelson after the game. "This is the best feeling in the world."
Mercer County quarterback Tanner Matlick said, "Growing up with these guys, it's been a great ride."
"It's one of the best feelings in the world. We did it. We did it," said Golden Eagle Chris Neeld.
The Golden Eagles fell behind early in the contest 7-0 as Belleville Althoff completed a 19 play drive for a touchdown. The scoring play was a 19 yard pass from Eric Mertens to Luke Frazier on fourth down. The Crusaders led 7-0 with 2:04 remaining in the first quarter. It was the only play of the drive more than nine yards. The drive started with a Golden Eagle fumble.
The Golden Eagles tied the score at 7-7 as fullback Jesse Snyder scored on a two yard run with 15 seconds remaining in the first half. The play was the culmination of a 11 play Golden Eagle drive. The drive started as the GOlden Eagles recovered a fumble at the Althoff 35 yard line.
The only score of the second half came at the end of a nine play Althoff Catholic drive when Golden Eagle Devin Morford recovered a Crusader fumble and returned it 95 yards for the touchdown. at the 8:22 mark.
Morford said, "They were really close to scoring. I stripped the ball and found it on my hip and kept running."
"We thought he was down," said Belleville coach Ken Turner, about his player who fumbled the ball.
Zunkel said he had turned his head to get ready to call the next play.
The game was marred with 10 turnovers, six by the Crusaders and four more by the Golden Eagles and set a state final for the state final.
"We spend 10 minutes in practice every Wednesday stripping the ball," said Zunkel. "We came up with some huge turnovers. We are a plus 20 in the playoffs in turnovers."
"I instituted a more conservative defense when I got here," said Zunkel.
"I thought we made too many fumbles to win the ball game," said Belleville coach Ken Turner.
"We would drive and then fumble," said Turner. "We thought we could pound the football against them. When we didn't make mistakes we drove the ball.
Page 2 of 2 - The Crusaders had a good chance late in the game when its defense stripped Matlick of the football late but after recovering it they fumbled and recovered and fumbled and lost the ball finally at the Golden Eagle 19 yard line.
"I doubled over," said Zunkel after Matlick got hit. They scoop and return We finally got the ball 60 yards from the snap. That's a testament to our kids. A lot of kids would have given up on that play. I thought we were going to overtime."
"Nelson got the second strip and I got the ball," said Morford.
"If we gave game balls it would go to Morford," said Zunkel.
"I was in the zone today," said Golden Eagle linebacker Chris Neeld. Neeld came up with some big hits on defense on the day and led the Golden Eagles in solo tackles with eight.
"It stinks the rest of your life - losing," said Crusader linebacker Erik Furmanek.
"Only one team in the state gets to go out as champs," said Zunkel. "I'm glad it's us."
Matlick completed seven of his 14 pass attempts for 93 yards. Tyson Nylin caught four passes for 59 yards.
Zach Nelson led Mercer County in rushing with 79 yards. Jesse Snyder added 16 yards on five carries including one touchdown.
Crusader quarterback Eric Mertens completed 20 of 29 pass attempts for 248 yards and one touchdown. Dennis Jackson led all ball carriers with 107 yards rushing. Keenen Young caught eight passes for 89 yards.