The Eureka Lions may not be as familiar with the Hail Mary as the athletes from Loyola Sacred Heart.
But in a time of need, trailing 28-25 on fourth down with 8 seconds left in the Class B state football championship game, the Lions called for the play that shares the prayer’s name.
And it worked.
Eureka’s Garrett Graves delivered the 38-yard Hail Mary heave that senior wide receiver Austyn Sherwood came down with behind the leaping Ram defenders. Sherwood stumbled for the remaining 2 yards into the end zone as time expired at Rollin Field, giving the Lions a stunning 31-28 victory and the Class B title on Saturday.
The Lions’ prayer was answered.
“We need a miracle, we need help from God,” said Sherwood of his thoughts as Eureka scrambled to the line for the final play. “It’s everything you could ask for.”
Eureka had to drive 94 yards with 3 minutes remaining to claim its first Class B state title in school history. The Lions converted two fourth downs, including the final last-ditch pitch-and-catch to seal the exciting state-championship win.
A 4-yard throw from Graves to James Dunn one play before the game-winning play kept the clock running. Eureka was slow to get to the line, as Graves called out to his wide receivers the final play. The Lions were out of timeouts and Eureka coach Trevor Utter couldn’t get a play call in to his team.
“I didn’t even have a play called. I just said ‘get to the line, trips (formation), go.’ They all went deep and Austyn caught it,” Utter said in a sea of Orange and Black after the game.
That left Graves, Eureka’s junior quarterback, with the call at the line as the clock ticked under 10 seconds.
“I yelled to my teammates, I said ‘just get open.’ That’s the only thing I could really say,” Graves said. “‘Just get open; this is some school yard (stuff).’”
A Rams lineman smothered Graves as he threw -- the secondary was there on the play -- but Sherwood slipped just behind the safeties. The ball arced out of the reach of the Loyola defense, and Eureka won it.
“…They’re running for their lives, we have pressure on them and… Sometime’s it’s just divine intervention -- it’s just not supposed to work out,” Loyola head coach Todd Hughes said.
For No. 1-ranked Loyola (11-1 overall), the last-second score erased a perfect season and a valiant comeback effort to take the lead in the fourth quarter, 28-25.
The Rams trailed 25-14 with 8:51 left in the third quarter after Graves ran in for a 2-yard touchdown on a quarterback keeper up the gut. He bobbled the snap, but still plunged ahead for six.
The teams traded turnovers on downs, and Loyola took over with 2:25 remaining in the quarter needing a score. Round -- who finished 21 for 27 passing with 273 yards -- completed five passes on the drive, including a 40-yard strike to Jackson Maricelli and a 23-yarder to a diving Caden Sant.
Round finished the drive himself with a 2-yard touchdown run two plays into the fourth quarter to pull Loyola within five, 25-20.
“He threw the ball better today then I’ve ever seen,” coach Hughes said. “It was absolutely remarkable what that kid did, but he’s done that all year long.
“I asked them at halftime to leave everything out here on the field. Kellen did that and them some.”
On the ensuing kickoff, the Rams dialed up a surprise onside kick. Senior Jacob Byrne placed the pooch perfectly down the Eureka sideline and David Koppang recovered to give Loyola the ball back.
“…We scored, and I wanted to go for the dagger,” Hughes said. “I really thought we needed a momentum changer, a momentum swing, and it did exactly that.”
Two plays later, Round found Koppang with a 30-yard touchdown pass. Joaquin Trevelline punched it in for the two-point conversion to make it 28-25, Loyola’s lead, with 10:48 remaining.
Loyola fans, who spilled beyond the bleachers and onto the surrounding hillside, could taste the Class B title.
Eureka even turned the ball over on downs on its next possession, giving Loyola the ball on the Lions 45 just past the midway point of the fourth quarter.
Loyola’s drive stalled on a failed fourth-down attempt at the 6-yard line, though. That left just enough time for the Lions to drive the length of the field and capture the state title in stunning fashion.
It was Eureka’s (11-1) first ever football title, and third team title ever in any sport.
“The old timers, they’ve never lived to see a state championship and they’re already coming up and saying ‘my gosh, I can die now.’ It’s just unbelievable for our community to have this,” coach Utter said.
Eureka finished with 421 total yards of offense. The Lions' lead running back, Cannan Smith, finished with 135 yards rushing and a touchdown on the ground. He added a 45-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter from Graves.
Graves added a rushing touchdown to go along with his three passing touchdowns on 10 of 24 passing for 163 yards.
Loyola's Brady Needles had 23 yards and a touchdown. Koppang was the leading receiver for the Rams with 86 yards and a score on five receptions.
But it was Sherwood’s game-winning catch -- his third of the game -- that will have Eureka counting its blessings for years to come.