DEKALB — In the moment, Murphysboro players such as Jake Hoppenstedt were hurting Friday night.
The Red Devils’ first crack at a state championship ended with a 50-14 rout at the hands of Richmond-Burton, which scored every time it had the ball until its last, when it was merely running out the final three minutes.
“It’s awesome that we made school history, but I don’t want to settle for second,” Hoppenstedt said.
Nevertheless, Murphysboro’s run to the Class 4A title game not only caught the attention of football fans around the state, it united a town that two months ago was caught in the throes of controversy over a teacher’s strike that led to students missing five class days before a deal was reached.
Fans got behind the Red Devils in a way they haven’t for a long time. They packed Bencini Field for home playoff wins over Illinois Valley Central and Bishop McNamara, then made their presence known last weekend in a semifinal overtime win at Effingham that put Murphysboro on the big stage.
And although the Red Devils were simply outclassed by Richmond-Burton, which lived up to its considerable billing, players like Dezmond Clark truly appreciated the circumstances that led to the team’s trip to Huskie Stadium.
“They supported us when no one thought we had a chance against Bishop McNamara, they came up to Effingham, came up here, shook our hands … our town loves the game of football,” Clark said. “They didn’t want to see us kept out of it. They wanted us on the field as soon as possible.
“The teachers weren’t in the strike for the money. They would take anything they offered as long as they offered employment. They just wanted to see us play. It meant a lot to us, and I feel like we made them proud.”
Three fan buses followed Murphysboro more than five hours to DeKalb, enabling it to play in front of a crowd that appeared to equal the fan base of Richmond-Burton. Red Devil fans would have had a shorter drive to Huntsville, Ala., than they had to DeKalb, yet still appeared in droves.
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And they did at least get a pair of late consolation touchdowns for their round trip of close to 11 hours.
“That’s the team I wanted to coach,” said Murphysboro coach Gary Carter of the second half. “Believe it or not, I felt better about the second half than I did the first. I wanted to feel good about the kids’ efforts, and they battled. They fought all the way to the end.”
Could Nashville Return?
In the wake of its 35-14 loss to Newman Central Catholic earlier Friday in the 2A title game, Nashville felt like it beat itself as much as the Comets beat it. The Hornets committed four turnovers that cost it 21 points and rendered their statistical advantages in yardage, first downs and plays meaningless.
However, Nashville might have a chance to avenge that performance at this time next year. While it loses warriors like Julian Metcalf, Neil Kabat, Jackson and Justin Aulds, and Joe Wacker, the cupboard won’t exactly be bare in 2020.
Cole Malawy, who threw for 3,098 yards and 34 touchdowns, is back. So are the top four receivers — Isaac Turner, Nick Miller, Jaxon Goforth and Gavin Baldwin. So is defensive end Rhyker Rees, who was all kinds of impressive in registering nine tackles, including three for loss, on Friday.
Add in the return of a couple of offensive linemen who were lost early in the season to injury, plus running back Luke Ehret, who bagged 495 yards before tearing his ACL in the first round of the playoffs, and the Hornets figure to play meaningful games next November.
“I told them after the game that there can’t be any dropoff,” said Nashville coach Stephen Kozuszek. “We just have to build on this and keep this going for years to come. It’s their job as players and our job as coaches to keep this thing in place.”