FOOTBALL

State champions! West Central holds off Amboy 44-36 in title game

Barry McNamara
Special to The Register-Mail
West Central players hoist the Illinois 8-player championship trophy after winning 44-36 against Amboy Friday in Monmouth, Illinois.

MONMOUTH — A journey that began under the boiling sun in the dog days of August ended Friday under the moon on the frozen turf of Monmouth College’s April Zorn Memorial Stadium. It might’ve been 70 degrees colder than the first day of practice, but there was one thing for certain — the West Central Heat were still red-hot.

Coach Jason Kirby’s squad capped a perfect 13-0 season Friday night, defeating Amboy/La Moille/Ohio for the second time in a month to capture the Illinois 8-Man Football Association championship. The final score was 44-36, as Heat standout Kaiden Droste rushed for 175 yards and scored four touchdowns.

“I’m just so happy for everybody in the community,” said Kirby. “I’m so happy they get to see our kids elevated to this level. So happy.”

When the Heat and Clippers met in the final game of the regular season, they were ranked first and second in the state, and Amboy was able to play up to that reputation this time around, thanks, in part, to the return of all-state quarterback Tucker Lindenmeyer, who led the Clippers with 72 yards on 10 carries.

“He’s a good player,” said Kirby from the warmth of the Zorn Stadium press box, minutes after his players and coaches had each received their individual medals and the team had posed with the state champion trophy. “He and 85 (Brennan Blaine) complement each other so well.”

In the buildup to the game, Kirby called Blaine “the best tight end in Illinois.”

“85 spreads you out, and their quarterback did a good job of extending plays,” said Kirby.

The duo also helped Amboy extend the outcome of the game until late in the fourth quarter, after it looked early on that it might be another runaway Heat victory.

West Central’s Blake Cole (54), right, kisses the Illinois 8-player championship trophy as he celebrates with teammates after the victory against Amboy Friday in Monmouth, Illinois.

After stopping Amboy on downs to start the game, West Central’s fifth play of the game was a 46-yard Droste TD run that saw him break several tackles along the way.

On the ensuing kickoff, Kirby was convinced to try a special play by his squad and by his coach in the press box, Steve Arnold.

“Our kids were saying, ‘Let’s do the ‘Mob Kick,’” said Kirby of a formation that essentially looks like a huddle approaching the ball on the tee. “Then called for it, too, from upstairs.”

The Heat recovered the onside kick, earning a critical extra possession.

“I was like, ‘Nice call, guys,” said Kirby.

A five-play scoring drive followed, with Droste covering the final 40 yards on back-to-back carries. His second two-point conversion run put West Central ahead 16-0 with 4:03 left in the first quarter.

Droste added his third rushing score midway through the second period, but Amboy continued to battle, seizing momentum on a Lindenmeyer TD run that made the score 22-16. The Clippers then recovered the ensuing onside kick, and they had enough time to drive for the tie or even lead at halftime.

West Central's Mason Carnes (8) battles for the fumble by Amboy's Brennan Blaine (85) in the Illinois 8-player championship Friday in Monmouth, Illinois. West Central would recover the fumble.

But Droste had other ideas. The senior standout intercepted an ill-advised throw by Lindenmeyer and ran it back 60 yards for a pick-six.

Getting the ball back with 1:29 to play, Amboy threatened again, with Lindenmeyer and Blaine connecting on a 35-yard pass play to the West Central 10-yard line, but the Heat forced a fumble on the next play and took a 28-16 lead into the intermission.

“We told them at halftime that if we recovered the onside kick to start the half, that we’d go down and score, and they wouldn’t be able to come back from 20 points down,” said Kirby.

And that’s the way it played out although, Kirby had to admit, “(Amboy) gave us everything they had.”

Droste took the third quarter’s first play from scrimmage 41 yards to the Amboy 11, and three straight Mason Carnes keepers punched the ball into the end zone for a 36-16 West Central lead.

West Central's Bryce Bigger (3) hugs head coach Jason Kirby during the celebration of the 44-36 victory in the Illinois 8-player championship against Amboy Friday in Monmouth, Illinois.

Carnes was also the featured ball carrier on a critical Heat drive after Amboy had closed the gap to 36-30 with 2:40 left in the third quarter. West Central took 11 plays to go 50 yards, with Carnes carrying six times for 20 yards, including a key fourth-down conversion as snow began to fall in the chilly stadium. One play later, his QB sneak made the score 44-30 with 9:18 left to play.

“Our offensive line just went to work,” said Kirby of the Heat’s second-half attack, which was effective, if not flashy. The only carry that went for double-digit yards was Droste’s 41-yarder. “Parker (Meldrum) and Mason were just crushing the middle. We knew we could run ‘A-Gap Wedge’ and get three or four yards with every time, six or seven yards if they missed a tackle.”

Amboy again had an answer, driving 51 yards in 12 plays, keyed by another long pass from Lindenmeyer to Blaine, who connected six times in the game for 94 yards. Landon Whelchel’s 7-yard TD run over the left side made it a one-score game again with under three minutes remaining.

There were still two hurdles to clear for a state title, and the Heat passed both tests, first recovering Amboy’s onside kick and then picking up a first down that allowed them to get into the victory formation for the final three plays.

As he huddled with his team in the moments immediately following the handshake line at midfield, Kirby told his team, “They’re never going to take away the banner of state champions for West Central High School!”

A few minutes later, the championship-winning coach praised his championship squad.

“Man, our kids – wow,” he said. “These young men are amazing. They’re pretty special kids. I’m pretty lucky.”