PRINCETON – “Keep fighting!” “Don’t give up!”
Those words rang down the Princeton sidelines Friday night at Bryant Field as the Tigers trailed Fulton by 17 points at halftime and by 10 early in the fourth quarter.
The Class 3A No. 2-ranked Tigers kept fighting and never gave up, rallying for three touchdowns in the final 10 minutes to claim a 49-38 victory in the 2021 spring finale and finish 6-0.
“That’s what coach [Ryan] Pearson preaches. Doesn’t matter if we’re down 40-0, or 50-0, anything. We’re never giving up and we never gave up,” PHS senior running back Ronde Worrels said.
“I’m so happy for our kids. They’re extremely resilient and there’s no quit in these kids. They get down 31-14, but our kids continue to persevere. They continue to keep fighting,” Pearson said.
“What a win. What a win. Oh my gosh. What a win.”
With no postseason to play for, Pearson billed this game as the Tigers’ state championship.
“We said this was going to be our state championship game, and it was every bit and then some. Hats off to Fulton. They came over here and played a whale of football game,” he said. “It just came down to our kids made a couple more plays at the end and got the big win.”
“We came in knowing us seniors built this program up, and Coach Pearson has taught us everything. We couldn’t let him down the last game,” Worrels said. “He’s been such a great coach to all of us. Give that W to him, and getting that W to us seniors is very important to us.”
The Steamers (4-1), ranked No. 3 in this week’s 1A AP Poll, led as much as 31-14 midway through the third quarter on a 33-yard touchdown run by Ethan Rash.
Then PHS senior quarterback Tyler Gibson went to work.
He connected with a a wide-open Teegan Davis, who broke behind the Fulton secondary, with no defender anywhere close, for a 60-yard TD strike.
Gibson liked one Davis brother so much, he passed to another, connecting with senior Cael Davis for a 33-yard touchdown to make it a 31-28 game with 1:40 left in the third quarter.
Rash added a 1-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter to put the Steamers back in front by 10, 38-28.
Gibson threw for his third touchdown of the game, a 12-yard TD pass to Augie Christiansen to pull the Tigers within 38-35 with 10:25 remaining.
Pearson called for an onside kick and the Tigers recovered at the Fulton 23. Six plays later, Gibson sneaked in from a yard out to give the Tigers their first lead of the night at 42-38 with 8:48 remaining.
Worrels capped his career as Bureau County’s all-time leading rusher with a 5-yard touchdown to put the finishing touches on the Tigers’ come-from-behind victory.
“They definitely hit us hard and smacked us in the mouth. I think everybody else wrote us out, but we kept our heads on. We said, ‘Keep fighting, keep fighting.’ Those were the key words tonight, ‘Keep fighting,’” PHS senior lineman Grant Foes said.
Fulton has played in the Three Rivers Conference for 46 years. Its last game certainly had to be one of its most exciting games.
“We kept fighting. They made couple adjustments. They’re a good football team. We knew we wouldn’t be able to keep them down for four quarters,” Fulton coach Pat Lower said. “That was a great high school football game. I know they say these [spring games] don’t mean anything, but this game meant a lot to these kids out here, these fans, these communities.
“I’m just proud of both football teams and communities. This was a fun football game. I was proud to be a part of it.”
Fulton, a charter member of the TRAC in 1976, will be joining the Northwest Upstate Illini Conference this fall.
The Steamers struck quickly for a 7-0 lead on a 70-yard pass from Connor Barnett to Jacob Jones less than 2 1/2 minutes into the game.
Kyler Pessman added a 11-yard touchdown run to make it 14-0 with 6:33 left in the first quarter.
Princeton evened the score on a 2-yard touchdown run by Worrels and a 21-yard quarterback keeper by Gibson at the end of first quarter to tie the game at 14-14.
PHS assistant Tyler Nichols joked with Gibson on the sidelines, “I didn’t know you could run that fast.”
Pessman scored on a 35-yard touchdown reception early in the second quarter and Endi Qunaj added a 30-yard field goal just before time expired to give the Steamers a 24-14 halftime lead.