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Irish go toe to toe with two-time champs in defeat

SENECA – Each team had two dominant quarters in which it scored a pair of touchdowns. Each finished with more than 350, but fewer than 400, total yards.

All that separated two-time defending Class 3A football champion Aurora Christian and host Seneca Saturday afternoon in a quarterfinal playoff game was an Eagles touchdown during one of the quarters Seneca owned, and two extra points. Aurora Christian won 36-27 after forcing four turnovers to Seneca's three, despite finishing with fewer total yards (393-367).

"Everybody on the team played as hard as they could. I don't think I saw anybody slacking all day," Seneca senior Bo Taylor said. "We played as hard as we could against probably the best team in the state, and put up a fight. You wanna win these games but, I mean, we gave it our all."

What may have been the most important sequence in a game filled with twists and turns came with the game tied at 15-15 and less than 3 minutes left before halftime. An Aurora Christian series lasted two plays, as Aurora Christian quarterback Austin Bray was sacked twice. On the second, Seneca's Austin Applebee recovered Bray's fumble to give the Fighting Irish the ball at the Eagles 11.

However, the Seneca drive didn't last long with Irish running back Tommy Lovett fumbling, and Aurora Christian's Jon Czerwinski recovering. Though the Eagles took over on their own 10 with 1:21 left in the half, they drove 90 yards and scored. A facemask penalty on the first play got them one first down, and passes from Bray to Brandon Walgren produced three more. Legend Smith then scored on a 1-yard run on fourth-and-goal.

"That touchdown there really hurt momentum," Seneca coach Ted O'Boyle said. "I thought we kind of had them on their heels just a tad. But that's what they do. They hit you with big plays."

Seneca's first three drives of the second half resulted in two punts and an interception, while Aurora Christian lost a fumble on its first before scoring touchdowns on its second and third. Down 35-15, the Irish drove 66 yards in eight plays for a much-needed touchdown. A 47-yard pass from Taylor to Ben Barnett on third-and-8 and a 6-yard run from Taylor on fourth-and-1 keyed the series, which Taylor capped with a 2-yard touchdown run.

Aurora Christian got a 30-yard run from Smith on third-and-9 on its next series and putting his team into Seneca territory before punting. The Irish scored quickly to keep their hopes alive. On third-and-7, Taylor was nearly sacked twice near the goal line, but he escaped and heaved the ball downfield to Barnett, who caught it and ran to the end zone for an 87-yard touchdown reception. Seneca went for one and missed, leaving its deficit 9 points with 5:36 to play.

The Irish opted to kick deep, and when Bray found Walgren for a 12-yard gain on third-and-10, their chances seemed slim. They forced a punt and got the ball back with 1:48 to play, and one play after Taylor found Applebee for a 25-yard gain, Taylor was intercepted by Czerwinski to effectively end the game.

"We were up three touchdowns in the third quarter. [Good] teams don't lay down," Aurora Christian coach Don Beebe said. "It always comes back to the coach, how they prepare in the offseason. .. [O'Boyle], that guy's a good coach. We knew they were gonna be that way because they're so senior-dominated. They have a lot of resolve."

Seneca built a 15-8 lead during a wild first quarter. Taylor lost a fumble, which led to Aurora Christian scoring the game's first touchdown on a 4-yard pass from Bray to Noah Hagerty. On Seneca's next offensive play, Taylor faked a handoff to Taylor before racing up the right sideline for a 74-yard touchdown. A Lovett interception of Bray gave Seneca the chance to score again, which it did on a fourth down, 18-yard pass from Taylor to Applebee.

The pass was the first for Taylor, who went on to complete 7 of 12 attempts for 186 yards. Before Saturday, Seneca's single-game high for passing yards was 94 in its Week 8 win over Herscher.

"It was a 7-route, which is ... it's a flag. I thought [Taylor] was gonna run it for a second, and I see he threw it up, and I just jumped up and came down with it," Applebee said. "All the receivers were getting used. They weren't keying on one player or anything. That allowed more people to be open."

Seneca also was the slightly more effective running team, gaining 187 yards on 35 carries to Aurora Christian's 164 on 34. Aurora Christian, which totaled 203 passing yards, did have 20 first downs to Seneca's nine.

"We were all pretty confident on what we could do," Lovett said. "I didn't think we'd move it as well as we did, though."

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