On blocked extra point, St. Laurence rallies past Wheaton Academy in 2 OTs

For all the bloody battles in the interior line, for all the hard-earned yards gained by St. Laurence's Aaron Ball and Wheaton Academy's Brandon Kiebles, Saturday's Class 4A semifinal between the Vikings and the Warriors came down to the meaty right hand of St. Laurence's Cesar Chavez.

It was Chavez who set the final score, 31-30 in the Vikings' favor, and sent St. Laurence to its first state championship game since 1979. It happened when he reached to the sky and blocked the extra-point attempt of Ethan Head in the second overtime. That ended the game and started a celebration for the Vikings, their pals and their families, that might go on until Thanksgiving.

"I just saw a vision," Chavez said. "I had to give up my body for my team. My hand hurts so bad. It doesn't matter. We're going to state now."

St. Laurence (10-3) didn't lead until all-stater Ball's 4-yard plunge, his fourth touchdown of the game, led off the second overtime, making it 31-24. Wheaton Academy (11-2) led 7-0, 14-0, 17-14 and 24-17. But the Vikings kept punching, knotting the score each time, led by Ball's 160 yards on 30 carries, and one critical 13-yard reception that kept the game-tying drive moving at the end of regulation.

Wheaton Academy's Brett Kasper, himself an all-stater, scored from the 1 to pull the Warriors within 31-30 after his 9-yard pass to Brett Dieter in the bottom of the second overtime. Wheaton Academy took timeout, mulling going for two and the win. Instead, the Warriors lined Head up for an extra point, given his reliability this season.

They didn't count on Chavez, who transferred from St. Rita after his freshman year, to come up with the game-winning block.

"It started sophomore year," Chavez said. "I blocked at least five that year. I kept practicing every time."

There's never been a bigger payoff for Chavez.

"Cesar's awesome, man," Vikings coach Adam Nissen said. "We have a brand of football that we play and Cesar fits into that mold. I'm happy he had a chance to make that play."

Now the Vikings have six days of madness ahead of them leading to a showdown with top-seeded Rochester on Friday night at Illinois State.

"The (22-yard) run changed the trajectory of the game," Ball said of his gambol on the fourth play of the 12-play tying drive as the clock ran against the Vikings with them trailing 17-14. "We were playing behind them with no momentum. That gave us confidence."

That pushed St. Laurence into Warriors territory. A 17-yard third-and-15 completion from Evan Les to Rob Francis kept the drive going. Les' 13-yard toss to Ball followed, and four plays later, Colin Bagley's 37-yard field goal with 17.7 seconds remaining forced overtime.

At that point, more than a few hearts in the crowd of about 3,000 might have skipped a beat.

Wheaton Academy's Giovanni Spinelli and Ball traded touchdowns in the first overtime, Ball ran into the end zone for the fourth time to open the second, and then Kasper lurched over the goal line to give Head the opportunity to force a third overtime. Then Chavez stepped up and ended the Warriors' longest march in the playoffs.

"You guys established something," Wheaton Academy coach Jim Johanik told his long-faced players. "You got us to this spot. We just fell short."

Nissen, in his fifth year for the Vikings, has been there before with IC Catholic. Assistant Frank Lenti will be making his 17th trip to the title game. All those two and their fellow staffers have to do this week is keep the heads of the players screwed on properly and prepare them for the dominant 4A team the last two decades.

"The seniors were my first recruiting class," 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."

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