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Great Seneca season gets an appropriate ending

SENECA – Aurora Christian could turn around and get blown out by Stillman Valley next week. In the prep football playoffs, you never quite know what will happen.

I would certainly not put it past the Eagles to win their next two games and claim a third straight Class 3A state championship, though. They’re a team with talent and depth that very few Class 3A teams can match, which was obvious Saturday afternoon.

Mighty Aurora Christian invaded Seneca for a quarterfinal game that day, and somehow, some way, the little team that could gave the Eagles more of a battle than just about anyone expected. The 36-27 final was the second-closest playoff game Aurora Christian has played since 2011. Before Saturday, no public school oppponent had stayed within 24 points of the Eagles in a playoff game, or within 18 points of them in any game, during the past three years.

“Pretty much the way we’ve been all season,” Seneca coach Ted O’Boyle said. “These kids were told from day one that there was a lot of things they couldn’t do, and it just shows when you’re that age of kid in high school, if you put your mind to something and you believe in something, you can achieve something. What we achieved this year, I think, is very special.”

To have any chance at winning, I thought the Irish would need a big game from their star, Bo Taylor, and they got one. Offensively, Taylor passed for 186 yards and two touchdowns, rushed for 115 yards and another score and ran in a two-point conversion. Defensively, he had a pair of sacks, including one on which teammate Bryce Coyle knocked the ball out of Eagles quarterback Austin Bray’s hands.

OK, one of the better football players in this area’s history having a big game isn’t that much of a surprise.

What I thought was surprising was the way the Irish held their own – if they didn’t simply outplay their opponent – in the trenches. The offensive line opened up enough running room for the Irish to rush for 187 yards on 35 carries and allowed the Eagles just two sacks of Taylor, which allowed him to pass for 186 yards.

“We knew we had to step it up,” Taylor said. “I got to move around a little bit. Our offensive line did pretty decent pass blocking today. I didn’t get pressured too bad, so we made plays. My receivers made themselves wide open.”

The Irish defensive front was even more impressive. Bray was sacked four times – twice each by Taylor and Austin Applebee – and came under fire on several other dropbacks. One hurry resulted in a Tommy Lovett interception.

“We had nine sacks at Westmont, but that didn’t really mean much because they were all passing,” Seneca linebacker Brad Wyss said. “This team, they try to do half and half. The sacks we had and the rushing we had meant a heck of a lot more.

“We had two rules. When they were in shotgun, we’re gonna let our two best pass rushers in [Applebee and Taylor] just get after the quarterback, send five in. When they were under center, we just played 4-4 and played smashmouth.”

I saw the Irish five times this season – the Peotone and Wilmington regular season games, and all three of their playoff games. Even though the Wilmington game was a loss, you could argue I saw their five most impressive efforts, given the strength of the opposition compared to their other games.

With the possible exception of their 46-6 second-round win over Robeson – a game in which it’s tough to tell how well Seneca truly played against an overmatched opponent – I thought what I saw Saturday was the best I’ve seen from the Irish.

In my 11 years, only Coal City’s 2007 Class 4A semifinal loss to Driscoll comes to mind as a similarly great effort from a local team in defeat, and that game wasn’t nearly as close.

The Irish were upset afterwards, as you’d expect, but even in that moment, they knew their effort was an ending to a 9-3 season in which they could take pride.

“We showed that we came prepared, focused – just couldn’t finish it,” Seneca linebacker Matt Johnson said. “It was a good season, and it was a pretty good game.”

After the team’s postgame huddle on the field, Seneca’s seniors field walked off the field, hand in hand, to applause. They feel that the players who remained behind will build on their success.

“This is a start,” Lovett said. “I have complete faith in all the juniors next year are gonna step up. They’re gonna get us here again. I know that they have what it takes, and I think they know that, too.”