Sacred Heart-Griffin rallies past Rochester in wild IHSA football state semifinal

Bill Welt
State Journal-Register

Never fold, never quit.  

Sacred Heart-Griffin's state prospects seemed distant at best when it trailed by 28 points at the start of the second quarter. It appeared this was going to be distinguished coach Ken Leonard’s final appearance on the sidelines.  

The No. 2-seeded Cyclones (13-0) instead rallied against all hope and scored 35 unanswered points in the final 15 minutes en route to a rollicking 56-42 victory over No. 4 rival Rochester (11-2) in the Class 4A state semifinal at Ken Leonard Field on a bone-chilling Friday night. 

“We've had some comebacks, but never to win a game that meant so much,” said Leonard, who will retire at the end of this season

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In his nearly 40 years at SHG, Leonard couldn’t recall if he ever had a team trail quite like that and come back to win. The Cyclones now return to the 4A state finals for a second consecutive season but this time at Memorial Stadium in Champaign after falling to Joliet Catholic in DeKalb last season.  

They face Saturday’s winner between No. 13 New Lenox Providence Catholic (8-4) and No. 3 Wheaton St. Francis (11-1) on Friday at 7 p.m. 

This is the 12th title game appearance for SHG, which has five titles.

“It's like, 'Whoa, we're not going to make it,’” Leonard said. “But these kids wouldn't quit, and I've got the best coaching staff in the United States and I've got a great group of seniors and juniors — they're just not going to quit.” 

Sacred Heart-Griffin's Ty Lott runs the ball during the game against Rochester Friday Nov. 18, 2022.

Cyclones seize the momentum 

Rochester senior quarterback Keeton Reiss totaled four touchdown runs. His last propelled the Rockets ahead 42-21 with under five minutes left in the third quarter.  

SHG senior running back Richard Jackson quickly answered with a 5-yard touchdown run before the defense regrouped and siphoned all momentum. 

Senior Madixx Morris nabbed a key interception and followed with a 37-yard TD catch from senior QB Ty Lott on the ensuing play. 

“It's just a family,” Morris said. “We all know we have each other's back. This is probably the biggest bond I've ever created in my life with these boys, and we know that we're never going to give up and I know they'll never give up on me. As long we're playing together we're going to try to come out with the win.” 

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Senior teammate J’veon Bardwell recovered a fumble to set up Lott’s game-tying 27-yard TD pass to senior Jake Hamilton with 10:33 left in the fourth period. 

Lott completed 11 of 17 passing attempts for 142 yards and three TDs with one INT while rushing for 92 yards and one TD. Morris and senior standout KeShon Singleton combined for eight catches for 103 yards and two scores. 

“I don’t even know who did it,” Bardwell said of the fumble, “I’m just diving on the ball. I knew it was one of my teammates, credit to whoever did that. 

“Never fold, always pick each other up because when you nag at each other and bring each other down, you won't get anywhere. Once we started lifting each other back up, it was over with. It was us versus us.” 

SHG’s defense forced a three-and-out before Jackson capitalized with a go-ahead 45-yard touchdown run on 4th-and-1 with 6:36 left.  

Jackson ran for 102 yards and three scores on eight carries. Senior running back Bill Sanders added 52 rushing yards. 

Sacred Heart-Griffin's Richard Jackson scores a touchdown putting Sacred Heart-Griffin ahead for the first time in the game Friday Nov. 18, 2022.

“We knew we had to come back out and put on a show,” Jackson said. “28-0, it was unacceptable for us, but they're a great team, so we gave them their credit. We went, we executed perfectly. We did everything we were told during halftime and everything.  

“We knew from the beginning that it was going to be a dogfight, so we knew we had to come out and we had to do everything we had to do to win.” 

Another defensive stand led to a turnover on downs and Lott cemented the herculean comeback with a 9-yard TD run. 

SHG previously rallied to a 49-42 win over Rochester, coached by Ken’s son Derek, after trailing 25-7 during the first half of last year’s Class 4A state semifinal. 

This game marked the 16th and final chapter of the heralded Leonard Bowl series.

“Everybody came out, did what they needed to do and brought it in the fourth quarter,” Bardwell said. “Nobody gave up on each other and we all came together as a team and it clicked.” 

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Rochester's Jack Swaney catches a pass and then runs for a touchdown during the game against Sacred Heart-Griffin Friday Nov. 18, 2022.

Rockets bolt in first quarter

SHG totaled zero yards of offense and no first downs in the first quarter and trailed 21-0 before Reiss added a 3-yard touchdown run to begin the second quarter. 

“It was tough, but one thing we didn't do was hang our heads,” Jackson said. “We kept our heads high and we just went on to the next play every time. That was the whole thing. Forget the last play, move on to the next one, do better and execute.” 

Jackson finally put the Cyclones on the board with a short TD run with 8:30 left in the first half. Lott later found Singleton with 20.4 seconds left on 4th-and-7 for a 35-21 halftime deficit. 

That proceeded some trickery from Rochester in which Parker Gillespie dialed up an 81-yard TD pass to Jack Swaney following a lateral by Reiss. 

Swaney finished with five catches for 133 yards and one TD. 

Reiss went 13-of-21 for 190 passing yards with one INT while rushing for 86 yards and four scores. Gillespie ran for 69 yards and had four catches for 36 yards. 

“We were fresh and we started getting banged up again, and we're banged up anyway, so we just wore out and I didn't do a good job in the second half,” Derek Leonard said. “That was it.” 

Contact Bill Welt: (217) 788-1545,,