SHELBYVILLE – Before the season started, Josh Jostes knew he and sophomore quarterback Ian Benner were embarking on what they hope will be a successful three-year run together.
It didn't matter how strong the winds were, how much the rain pierced the skin or how biting the cold was, Benner made sure he would have one more chance to play another game this season.
He tossed two touchdowns and ran for another in a matter of just over nine minutes between the third and fourth quarters in Maroa-Forsyth's 25-14 win over Shelbyville in Saturday's Class 2A state football semifinal game at Shelbyville.
The win gives the Trojans (12-1) their second consecutive appearance in the state championship game, despite the worst conditions Benner said he has played in to date.
“How about my little sophomore quarterback hitting two big bombs in these conditions today,” Jostes said of Benner, who finished with 146 passing yards and 61 rushing yards.
“I'm so proud of him. I told him coming into the season that we were going to win a lot of games together. We have already and we've got a lot more to win.”
With heavy winds and rain howling at his back, Benner unleashed a 30-yard dart to receiver Kam Boline down the right sideline for a touchdown with 3:42 left in the third quarter to give the Trojans their first touchdown since the 8:15 mark in the first quarter to move back within one, 14-13.
It was a sign of things to come.
Shelbyville (10-3) appeared poised to answer right back before a 7-play drive ended at the 22-yard line with a fumble – the fourth of five turnovers for the Rams.
“Our kids were resilient,” Jostes said. “We said they had to win the third quarter and play 12 minutes like they've never played before. Shelbyville went on a little bit of a drive and we were able to get the stop.”
On the very next play, Benner found Boline again, this time for 81 yards to give the Trojans their first lead since the 27.5 second mark in the second quarter, 19-14. Boline had two catches for 117 yards and two scores.
“The first touchdown pass to Kam Boline got the spark going and we just kept going after that,” Benner said.
Maroa's defense held the high-octane Rams in check again on the ensuing possession.
Then, on the seventh play of the following drive, Benner capped off an 80-yard drive with a 58-yard touchdown run down the middle of the field to give Maroa a 25-14 lead with just over six minutes left in the game.
With a muddy, slippery field in front of him, Benner had two thoughts on his way to the end zone.
"Try not to slip and hold on to the ball," he said.
But way back at the line of scrimmage, Maroa running back Deondre Gregory – who finished with 126 rushing yards and a touchdown for Maroa – had no doubts Benner would find the end zone.
“Everybody flew with me," Gregory said. "When I came out on my swing and I saw four guys come with me I said, 'Yeah, he's going to take this to the house.'”
Gregory appeared poised for a massive day after taking an 80-yard run for a touchdown on Maroa's second possession. But uncharacteristic fumbles, and a fierce Shelbyville defensive line led by Clayton Peterson's eight tackles and a sack and Cree McConnell's six tackles, slowed down the back.
But, he said, it was a battle of attrition to advance to DeKalb.
“We're not used to playing in anything like this,” Gregory said. “We haven't played in the rain, cold and wind in a while. We knew going into it that we would have to deal with these conditions. It's a mind over matter thing with the tough conditions. Great teams play through it and get wins like this.”
Shelbyville's chance to answer back was thwarted by Hayden Mitchell, Maroa's junior defensive back who nabbed his third interception of the day.
It would be a career high for most, but Mitchell, a two-year starter, had a three interception game last year against Pleasant Plains.
“There's not a better feeling,” Mitchell said. “The conditions are awful, but I love it.
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“I just said to myself, 'You can't catch this with your hands. Go in with the body and haul it in.'”
Mitchell played in the state championship game last season, and Jostes knew exactly what the 5-foot-9 defensive back was capable of.
“We knew he was going to be a playmaker,” Jostes siad. “They were tough conditions to go catch a ball. We had some go through our hands and they had some go that way. Hayden went up and made plays and got them at the high points.”
Shelbyville opened scoring with a 5-yard pass from Turner Pullen to Kentrell Beck on its first possession of the game and carried a 14-7 lead into halftime after Pullen found the end zone again late in the second quarter on a 6-yard quarterback keeper.
Pullen finished with 160 rushing yards on a game-high 36 carries and 52 passing yards.
Maroa-Forsyth will get another Heart of Illinois Conference team in the state championship game against Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley at approximately 1 p.m. Friday.
For the second consecutive year, the Rams and Trojans met in the Class 2A semifinal game. In both of those instances, the weather had been horrendous.
It's fair to wonder how these games would have turned out had it not been for bad weather in both instances. The teams combined for eight turnovers Friday and nearly a few more on bad snaps of a wet football.
But, Shelbyville head coach Bill Duckett isn't using the weather as an excuse.
“I wish we didn't hold with them,” Duckett said. “I wish we were ahead. I don't care about the conditions. We both played in it. We just didn't come out on top.”
A menace for the Trojans
It's no secret that Maroa has a far larger offensive line than in year's past. Seemingly, it would have meant advantage Trojans in the trenches.
Except 150-pound Clayton Peterson of Shelbyville had different ideas.
“(Clayton Peterson) wreaked havoc on us,” Jostes said. “Our kids were saying they couldn't get moving and he could still. … I didn't see why (Peterson) was killing us other than he's fast and a really good football player.
The gold standard
Maroa coaches and players were decked in gold colored coats for warmth, but they also inadvertently doubled as a remind of the consistency of the Trojans.
In the last 10 years, Maroa has reached at least the semifinals nine times, has two state championships and four runner-up trophies.
Few, if any, schools match that consistency and Jostes and his team prides themselves on it.
“We define ourselves as one of the best programs over the last 14 years we've been as good as anybody other than Derek (Leonard) at Rochester so this was a defining moment,” Jostes said.
If you missed the Turner Pullen show at any point this season, that's a shame. Shelbyville's senior quarterback, still without a college commitment, accounted for 68 touchdowns this season. His passed 4,000 combined yards between rushing and passing.
The other shame is we won't get to see anymore Pullen to Kentrell Beck passes. The quarterback-receiver duo crossed the 1,000-yard threshold in each of the last two seasons.