SPRINGFIELD – It was the game that veteran coach Ken Leonard did not want to play.
And even after he and his Sacred Heart Griffin team captured a 56-42 victory Friday over Rochester, coached by his son Derek, in the Class 4A state semifinal round, he still was rather reserved in his feelings about the win.
Ken Leonard is retiring at the conclusion of the season, and while he really wanted to close his storied career with a state title, he didn’t relish having to carve a path to doing so by defeating his son’s team along the way.
“It feels great, but it feels horrible because that’s my son over there,” Ken Leonard said. “They smacked us in the mouth early, but our kids never quit. We just hung in there. The next game will be my last game and I thought for a lot of this game that my last game might be tonight. But those kids wouldn’t let it happen.”
Sacred Heart Griffin (13-0) will now play in next weekend’s Class 4A state championship game at 7 p.m. Friday at the University of Illinois. The Cyclones will play the winner of Saturday’s other semifinal game between Wheaton St. Francis and Providence Catholic.
Rochester ends it season with an 11-2 record, both of its two losses came to Sacred Heart Griffin.
The Rockets put forth a dominating performance in the first half. After marching down the field on the inaugural possession of the game for a touchdown, a fumble on the ensuing kickoff by Sacred Heart netted another Rochester possession, which turned into yet another score and a surprising 14-0 lead.
The typically pass-friendly Rockets ran the ball 17 consecutive times before throwing the football and it had Sacred Heart Griffin on its heels. Rochester scored a third touchdown before the first quarter ended.
It appeared Rochester was on the verge of turning the game into a runaway when Keeton Reiss bulled his way in for a score to put the Rockets up 28-0, but the Cyclones would start to chip away.
Richard Jackson scored on a 1-yard touchdown, and the Cyclones immediately got the ball back with a successful onside kick. A few plays later, Bill Sanders scored on a 4-yard run to suddenly trim the deficit to 28-14.
Then, Rochester pulled another rabbit out of its hat to reclaim the momentum, using a double pass from Reiss to Parker Gillespie, who then planted a throw downfield to Jack Swaney for an 81-yard score.
That restored Rochester’s lead to 35-14 and the Rockets seemed poised to carry that into the locker room, but Ty Lott threw a dart to KeShon Singleton with 20 seconds left in the second quarter that once again allowed the Cyclones to stay within striking distance.
But when Rochester intercepted Lott on the opening possession of the third quarter and went on a six-minute march down the field that ended in a 1-yard touchdown for Reiss, it once again looked as if the Rockets were on the verge of sealing the outcome, taking a 42-21 lead.
Sacred Heart Griffin got a 5-yard TD run from Jackson minutes later to close within 42-28 but still started the fourth quarter down two scores and without the football.
But Madixx Morris picked off a Reiss pass to squelch another promising Rochester drive and then Morris latched on to a 37-yard touchdown pass from Lott just seconds later.
On the ensuing drive, Rochester fumbled the ball away and Sacred Heart Griffin immediately went on the attack tying the score with a 27-yard touchdown pass from Lott to Jake Hamilton.
Sacred Heart then quickly forced a Rochester punt and then got itself into a fourth down situation of its own and it looked like Jackson might not be able to get to the marker to keep the drive alive, but he not only got there, but he squirted free from everyone and raced in for a 45-yard touchdown.
Rochester then turned over the ball on downs with the Cyclones cashed in on the short field and finishing off the string of 35 consecutive points with a 9-yard touchdown run that sealed the Cyclones place in the state championship game.
“Athletically they were just better than we were,” Derek Leonard said. “This was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, because in the back of my mind, he’s my father and I love him, and I want him to go out on top. And unfortunately it had to come at the cost of my team. I’m getting pulled both ways, but he deserves it.”