St. Francis can't cool off red-hot, state-bound Providence

Providence senior center Sean Dee works to master short, choppy steps as an offensive lineman.

During games, that's the norm until it's time to leave the field.

A stretch late Saturday afternoon brought little chance for the O-line or any position group to lengthen its strides. Even as the Celtics engulfed one another in the postgame huddle before welcoming giddy family and friends, the reality of a 17-14 victory against St. Francis in a Class 4A state semifinal seemed a distant concept.

"We went through a lot of hardships in high school, you know," Dee said. "Different coaches, COVID. To be here, it's surreal."

Providence (9-4) continued to render meaningless its No. 13 seed in the draw by outlasting the third-seeded Spartans (11-2). Next up: a meeting with 13-0 Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin in the 4A state championship at 7 p.m. Friday at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

First-year Providence coach Tyler Plantz was a Celtics junior linebacker when the team lost to SH-G 24-17 in a 2008 Class 6A semifinal.

Celtics sophomore Gavin Hagan sealed Saturday's outcome in the closing minute, intercepting Spartans quarterback Alessio Milivojevic deep in Providence territory.

"He makes plays like that all the time. That was crucial," Celtics running back/linebacker Mason Santiago said. "That's what you like to see out of a young guy, stepping up."

Hagan darted toward the pass one play after a 42-yard connection from Milivojevic to Kent State recruit Dash Dorsey brought St. Francis to the Providence 20-yard line, sending one more surge of delight through the home crowd.

"We fought. We fought our hardest. We just made too many mistakes," St. Francis senior running back/linebacker Brady Piper said. "I think the defense did a phenomenal job out there. The offense, we just made too many mistakes. Too many turnovers."

Piper scored on a 10-yard run late in the first quarter, and a two-point conversion gave the Spartans an 8-7 lead. His 47-yard touchdown run with 6:47 left in the third quarter extended the St. Francis advantage to 14-10.

Apart from Santiago's 1-yard touchdown run to cap a 33-yard drive on Providence's first possession, the Celtics trailed for most of the game. That changed for good with 4:12 remaining, when Providence's Kaden Nickel took a screen pass from quarterback Lucas Proudfoot and turned it into a 26-yard TD.

"We battle, man. We fight. We do everything," Proudfoot said. "We play four quarters of football. That's what Plantz tells us. We've got to finish. And today, we finished."

On the other sideline, Spartans coach Bob McMillen urged players to remain upbeat despite the outcome.

The Spartans, who reached the second round of the 4A playoffs last season, came within a victory of playing for the state title. Greg Purnell, the coach who guided the 2008 team to a 5A crown, attended Saturday's game.

"As a team, this was a great group of guys," Piper said. "We had an amazing year. I'm really proud of all the fight that they gave. There's definitely a future here at Francis, and I'm glad that my class of seniors was able to come in and change the culture along with coach Bob. We're really building something here. It's amazing, the season we had. It's a shame it had to end this way."

Providence, meanwhile, aims to conclude the season with the program's first championship since the 2014 team won in Class 7A.

"I mean, this team. It's awesome. I'm shaking right now," Santiago said. "But, I mean, the job's not finished. We've got to keep going. And our goal as a team is to get that ring, and that's we're striving for."

St. Francis' T.J. McMillen fights off a blocker Saturday. Sandy Bressner/
Providence players celebrate their Class 4A semifinal win over St. Francis in Wheaton on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022. Sandy Bressner/
St. Francis players take the field before their Class 4A semifinal game against Providence in Wheaton on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022. Sandy Bressner/
St. Francis' Amari Head carries the ball during their Class 4A semifinal loss to Providence Saturday in Wheaton. Sandy Bressner/
St. Francis' Amari Head (12) goes down with the ball during their Class 4A semifinal game against Providence in Wheaton on Friday, Nov. 19. 2022. Sandy Bressner/
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