Author Charles R. Swindoll wrote, “We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations.”
The Hall High School football team faced that dilemma as it trailed 32-22 with 2:51 left in the 1995 IHSA Class 3A championship game against DuQuoin at Illinois State University’s Hancock Stadium.
Even now, 25 years after the Red Devils scored 16 points in the final 1:27 for a 38-32 win in their first title-game appearance in school history, it’s still hard to explain – even for players and coaches.
“I remember a teammate saying, ‘Hey, all we need is a touchdown, an onside kick and another touchdown,’ “ said Hall running back Nick Guerrini, who is now the Red Devils’ head football coach. “I think everybody just said, ‘OK, let’s make it happen.’ ”
The teams had played to a 16-16 tie after the first half and were tied, 22-all, before DuQuoin – the state runner-up the previous season – took advantage of a pair of blocked punts in the fourth quarter, leading to a field goal and a touchdown to grab the 10-point advantage with just under three minutes to play.
However, Hall responded like championship teams do.
The Red Devils used a Guerrini 17-yard run and quarterback Jeff Turigliatti’s 32-yard pass to Eric Bryant to set up the former’s 1-yard plunge and ensuing two-point run to make it 32-30 with 1:27 left.
Now, all the Red Devils needed to do was recover an onside kick – something they hadn’t had to use – or really had even practiced – that season.
“We had never been in a situation where we needed to onside kick; we didn’t trail very much that year,” said running back/defensive back Eric Bryant, now Hall’s athletic director and assistant principal, who, along with Josh Turigliatti, scored first-half TDs. “It was very chaotic; we had just scored, everyone is excited, and Coach [Gary] Vicini is just yelling out and pointing to the players he wanted out there for the kickoff. We just made sure we only had 11 guys out there.”
Then came the moment of truth, with the chance resting on the tee and the toe of kicker Roger Reed.
“It was a bad kick, but looking back, it was perfect,” Bryant said with a chuckle. “It was a line-drive kick right at one of their players, but he missed it. It bounced right off his chest and just laid there in front of him. It also just happened to be right where I was at. I dove on it, and everyone else just piled on.”
The Red Devils now had the ball at the DuQuoin 44-yard line with one timeout left. On the first play of the drive, the Indians were called for defensive pass interference on a pass intended for Nick Heuser to move the ball to the 29. Then, after a short pass play to Bryant, Heuser made a great adjustment on a pass from a pressured Jeff Turigliatti, making the catch and falling to the 5.
Hall tried Bryant around right end, but DuQuoin stopped him at the 2. Then, out of a timeout, the Red Devils punched in the game-winning score, with Guerrini going over left tackle for his third TD of the game.
“I think everyone agreed that they wanted me to get the ball,” said Guerrini, who finished with 99 yards on 19 carries. “I have to be honest, I was prepared to run through a brick wall in that situation, but on the play our offensive line [Greg Hansen, Craig Pinter, Archie Burden, Tom Jeppson, Jim Balzarine, John Ziel – ‘The Hog Soldiers’] opened up a hole that I could have drove through backward. I felt like I was going to hit and break the goal post, I was running so hard.
“I still catch a lot grief, though. I never celebrated a single touchdown throughout my career, and I preach that now; it’s great to be happy, but hand the ball to the official and get back with your teammates. That was the one touchdown in my high school career that I celebrated, just a quick arm pump, and I get so much grief from it.
“But it was a good one, and I’m OK with that.”
Bryant said he’s not one to think about those times that often, but when he does, he remembers the team.
“That was a great time with a great group of people,” Bryant said. “We were the type of team that didn’t have very many returning starters from either side of the ball back from a very good team the previous year. We weren’t supposed to be very good, I guess, but we had a bunch of hard-working guys that just wanted to get better one game at a time.
“To be 16 or 17 years old and to have that kind of cool stuff happen, you feel very fortunate.”
For Vicini, who coached at Hall from 1984-2008 (amassing a 195-80 record) and coached a runner-up finish the following season and another state title in 2001, it was a season that, looking back, he feels no one, including himself, saw coming.
“We didn’t really use the term ‘rebuilding,’ we were just reloading, but we did lose a ton of players from a very good senior class the year before,” Vicini said. “What happened though, the kids that didn’t get to play a lot as juniors saw what it was going to take. I also thought that team had very good leadership in captains Jeff Turigliatti, Guerrini and Balzarine.
“The last couple of minutes of that game are a blur. Those kids, that team, they just refused to give in.”