GENESEO – All game long, the defenses for both Sterling and Geneseo controlled their Western Big 6 matchup Friday night at Bob Reade Field.
The penultimate play was the perfect finish for a slugfest between the longtime rivals, won 13-3 by the Golden Warriors.
Facing fourth-&-goal at the Sterling 6-yard line, Geneseo running back Jeron Neal broke to the outside on a run to the right. But just when it seemed like he was going to find the end zone for the game-winning touchdown, the Golden Warrior defense stepped up one last time and made another big play to secure the victory and hand the Maple Leafs their first loss.
“That last play, I’m going to be so honest, I’m still a little hazy about how it happened,” senior lineman Kendric Muhammad said. “Everybody just did their jobs phenomenally. We worked on this at practice, and everybody executed and took care of their responsibilities. That’s how we played all night, and that’s how everyone got it done.”
As Neal broke to the outside on the fourth-down run, Sterling senior cornerback Cale Ledergerber sprinted to track him down – and won the footrace to the edge. Neal turned the corner, but Ledergerber took his legs out, and the pursuing Sterling defense rallied to keep Neal a yard short of the goal line to preserve the win.
“I knew I was faster than him, and I just had to get there before he did. I had a good angle and tripped him up,” said Ledergerber, who was part of two medal-winning sprint relays last spring at the IHSA Class 2A State Track & Field finals. “It was the biggest play of the game, in my opinion, in a game full of great defensive plays.
“I couldn’t tell if he was short [of the goal line], because I tripped him up and then I kept sliding away from the end zone, and I couldn’t see. But my teammates helped out and hit him and knocked him back away from the end zone. It was very nerve-wracking when the officials were talking about whether he got into the end zone or not.”
With the turnover on downs at its own 1-yard line, Sterling (3-3, 3-0 WB6) was 6 seconds away from victory. Junior quarterback Joseph Holcomb – also part of those two medalist sprint relays – took the shotgun snap and ran right up the middle, just trying to get out of the end zone. Instead, he ended up breaking through the Geneseo defense that was crowding the line of scrimmage and sprinting 99 yards for a touchdown as time expired.
That final play more than doubled Sterling’s total yardage in the game, as they had 74 yards leading up to that final snap.
But the Warriors’ defense was also stellar, and that allowed their one big play on offense in the first 47 minutes, 54 seconds to stand up as the winning score.
On the fly
After struggling to move the ball for most of the first half, Sterling rolled the dice in fourth-&-10 from the Geneseo 32-yard line late in the second quarter.
With Drew Nettleton taking just his third snap of the game at quarterback, he lofted a pass down the left sideline. Mason Emin, running a fly pattern, ran past the Geneseo defender and under the ball, which settled into his hands inside the 5-yard line. He walked the tightrope down the sideline into the end zone for a touchdown and a 7-3 lead with 1:51 left until halftime.
“All I was thinking was to run as hard as I can, find the ball and catch it, then get in the end zone. I saw Drew let it go, and it looked like the pass was going out far, so I just thought, ‘I’ve got to get to it.’ I caught it at the 4, and I thought I might’ve stepped out of bounds, but they called a touchdown. That’s really all there was to it,” Emin said. “I knew as long as I caught it, even if I didn’t get in [the end zone], someone was going to afterward. The momentum from the big plays like that, our team feeds off of that.”
The play before, Nettleton’s pass in the flat to Emin came up short and bounced to the senior receiver. But the next throw was picture-perfect to give the Golden Warriors the lead.
Besides the 32-yard touchdown pass, Sterling managed just 22 yards of total offense in the first half, as Geneseo’s defense clamped down on the run game.
But the Warriors were just as stingy. They had two sacks and seven tackles for loss, and limited the Maple Leafs to 3 yards or fewer on 15 of their 21 running plays in the first half. Kendric Muhammad was blowing things up in the Geneseo backfield nearly every play, and Gage Tate and Wyatt Cassens had sacks.
“We just kept playing hard and playing aggressive. It was a lot of momentum for us every time we got a stop,” said Muhammad, who finished with seven of Sterling’s 12 tackles for loss. “Our defense, everybody did their jobs phenomenally, and we all fought to the end. I’m so proud of them.”
Geneseo (5-1, 3-1) had five pays of 7 yards or longer on the first drive, as it drove 63 yards in 15 plays – aided by two third-down penalties on Sterling that gave the Leafs first downs – for a 29-yard field goal from Brayden Combs.
Because of that long opening drive that chewed up 8:41 off the clock, the Leafs dominated time of possession (16:39-8:14) and offensive plays (28-16). But after that initial possession, Sterling’s defense forced the Leafs into a three-&-out, a six-play drive, and a four-play possession that ended the first half. Thanks to the lost-yardage plays, Geneseo had 0 net yards the rest of the half.
“I think we were really physical up front, and we did a good job slowing down their run game,” Ledergerber said. “And we had really good DBs in the back half, slowing them down in the pass game, making pass breakups and stopping their quarterbacks from being efficient.”
For the game, the Maple Leafs finished with 121 yards rushing and 47 yards passing. Neal got going in the second half, running for 74 yards on 16 carries; he had 79 yards on 21 rushes in the game.
But even though Geneseo spent much of the second half in Sterling territory, the Warriors’ D always bowed its back and kept the Leafs off the scoreboard.
Geneseo moved the ball to start the second half, but Sterling’s defense stepped up and forced a missed 41-yard field goal attempt and a punt.
“Defensively, that’s one of the better efforts that we’ve had in a long time. That’s a good [Geneseo] team over there, a really good team, so for our kids to find a way to keep them out of the end zone, and really on that first drive, just to hold them to that field goal, it was just such a gutty performance by our kids, and I’m so happy for them,” Sterling coach Jon Schlemmer said. “It’s little things, and I’d remiss if I didn’t say it, but it’s Donovan Burrow and our scout-team kids who gave us the look throughout the week that we needed to see for tonight. There’s guys like that where you probably didn’t hear their name or they didn’t step on the field tonight, but that’s what won us this game, was the way we prepared all week. So many kids are a part of that.”
After the second Geneseo series bogged down, Andre Klaver fielded the ensuing punt at the 4-yard line and returned it 96 yards for a touchdown – but an illegal block brought the ball all the way back to the Sterling 8-yard line. The Golden Warriors went three-&-out and punted.
But Geneseo also missed a few chances. The Leafs drove inside the Sterling 30-yard line on four of their five second-half drives and had nothing to show for it.
The opening drive got to the 19-yard line, but tackles for loss by Cassens and Muhammad forced the field-goal attempt, which was wide left. Three more tackles for loss on the next Geneseo possession resulted in a punt from the Sterling 32 on fourth-&-16, and the next drive fared no better, ending in a turnover on downs at the Sterling 28 after a fourth-&-12.
Then the final drive, where the Leafs went 64 yards in 11 plays – including runs of 31 yards and 19 yards and a 15-yard pass by starting quarterback AJ Weller in his first series after leaving the game midway through the fourth quarter – only to be denied the end zone by the slimmest of margins.
“Our kids willed their way to that win,” Schlemmer said. “For Geneseo to get to the half-yard line on fourth down and then us just be able to make that stop, that was such a huge play for us. This one’s going to go down in this rivalry’s history and be talked about for awhile.”