Sacred Heart-Griffin bests Providence for Class 4A state title in Ken Leonard’s final game

Providence Catholic quarterback Lucas Proudfoot is sacked by Sacred Heart-Grifin's Reggie Thomas in the Class 4A state title on Friday, Nov. 25, 2022 at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

CHAMPAIGN — Ken Leonard wasn’t sure if he’d ever win a state championship back in 2004.

The Sacred Heart-Griffin coach had been with the Cyclones for 20 years by then and couldn’t take the final step to win a state championship.

“This is really hard, this is really hard to get here and really hard to win,” Leonard said. “You’ve got to be good, you have to be lucky.”

Eighteen years later, Leonard sat inside of Champaign’s Memorial Stadium on Friday surrounded by players and with his sixth state championship trophy. The Cyclones had just beaten Providence 44-20 to win the Class 4A state title, and Leonard ended his 43-year coaching career by winning his 500th and final game.

“I am blessed,” Leonard said. “This group is special, this group is winners.”

Sacred Heart-Griffin (14-0) regrouped from a slow first two drives when Richard Jackson broke free for an 84-yard run to start the teams’ third possession. Jackson scored on a 4-yard run with 5:38 left in the first quarter to give the Cyclones a 7-0 lead.

Providence tied the game 7-7 when Lucas Proudfoot found Anthony Picciolini for a 4-yard pass with 11:58 left in the second quarter but the Cyclones scored 14 unanswered points on a 28-yard pass from Ty Lott to Jake Hamilton and a 54-yard Lott pass to Bill Sanders.

The Celtics made it a 21-14 game when Kaden Nickel scored on a 3-yard run in the second quarter.

Sacred Heart Griffin, however, blew the contest with 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter.

“It’s a special group,” Leonard said. “We knew how explosive, how good this group is.”

Madixx Morris caught an 18-yard touchdown pass and Sanders scored on a 1-yard run in the third quarter while Sanders rushed for another touchdown (15 yards) in the fourth quarter.

Mason Grove added a 47-yard field goal for the Cyclones in the third quarter.

Quarterback Ty Lott completed 12 of his 26 passes while Jackson rushed for 112 yards. Sanders rushed for 100 yards and ended the night with 54 receiving yards while Madixx finished with 75 receiving yards on three catches.

“Coach always told me big-time players make big-time plays,” Jackson said. “I felt like our offense played a big role in that.”

Providence (9-5) couldn’t stop Sacred Heart-Griffin from making big plays or driving down the field. The Cyclones scored points on four of their five possessions in the third quarter, including three touchdowns, as Sacred Heart-Griffins’ playmakers had explosive moments.

Proudfoot threw for 208 yards and one touchdown, including a score on a 1-yard run in the fourth quarter. Charlie Soltys finished the night with six catches for 136 yards.

Friday was the 12th championship game for the Celtics (9-5), the first under first-year coach Tyler Plantz. The new coach had spent much of the season trying to set the expectations for what he wanted his teams to do. He felt like they accomplished that this season.

“Our goal this year was to establish what it means to playCeltic football,” Plantz said. “They did it all year. They showed up and put in the work. We just didn’t block and tackle the way we needed to this year.”

An author is writing a book about Leonard and his family connection to football. The author joked that winning a state would make the ending much easier.

While it might be hard to leave something after so many years, Leonard is grateful for the memories and relationships he developed.

“It’s been a blessing,” Leonard said. “This is a great place to coach and I’ve been blessed.”