MONMOUTH — Entering Friday night’s Illinois 8-Man Football Association State Championship, something was going to have to give when the unbeaten and defending state champion Milford-Cissna Park took on fellow unbeaten Polo.

Thanks to an explosive ground game that wouldn’t quit, the Marcos found the endzone early and often and outlasted the Bearcats 50-26 at April Zorn Memorial Stadium in Monmouth to take the state trophy from the reigning champs.

“There’s a lot of teams that would trade places with us in a heartbeat to finish in second place,” Bearcats coach Clint Schwartz said. “Our guys played hard — they do everything that we ask, and Polo is just a good football team.

“Sometimes, you just run into those teams and there’s not much you can do about it, but at the end of the day, it is what it is, and our guys played hard.”

The Bearcats knew early on that Friday wouldn’t be like their 11 previous games, as the Marcos gave them their first deficit after the first quarter all season, scoring the first two touchdowns of the game before Penn Stoller and Keegan Boyle hooked up for a 53-yard touchdown to bring the Bearcats’ deficit to 12-6 after one.

“When they scored right away, we knew it was going to be a tough game,” Stoller said. “We were going to have to narrow in the focus, compete and give it our all.”

The Stoller-to-Boyle connection was a busy one, as the two hooked up for four touchdowns on the night. Boyle led all players with 215 receiving yards and the four scores on nine receptions, not bad for the senior who watched last year’s title game from the stands after taking his junior year off from football.

“I’m glad I came back out to play with my friends this year,” Boyle said. “They wanted me to come back out and I said, ‘you know what, it’s my senior year so I’ll come back out and play with these guys one more time.”

Stoller said that on some of those throws, like the toe-tapping touchdown Boyle made in the corner of the endzone early in the fourth quarter to cut the deficit to 42-26, he just threw the pigskin up and let his speedy receiver make the play.

“He played great, some of those catches were amazing,” Stoller said. “I put the ball up and he just went and made some spectacular catches. And shoutout to our linemen for giving me time to make those plays.”

As effective as Stoller and Boyle were, the Marcos and their running game, led by Jace Coffey and Alex Davies, was even more effective. Coffey had a game-high 232 yards, and Davies added 120 of his own, and each of them and quarterback Tucker Mumford all scored twice on the ground each.

“Polo is a good football team, well coached and great kids,” Schwartz said. “But at the end of the day, our kids are great kids, too, and the scoreboard doesn’t define who you are.”

In Friday’s loss, the Bearcats failed to take the lead at any point in the game for just the second time in the past two seasons. Between playing from behind and the Marcos’ ability to stop the run, the Bearcats were held to less than 100 rushing yards in a game for the first time all year, finishing with 79 yards on the ground.

“We knew that [Polo was] good, and we knew it was gonna be a dogfight,” Schwartz said. “We knew they were going to be able to take away something from us, so we tried to figure out what that was. Then, we relied on the pass game, which we have no problem doing.”

With Boyle’s gaudy numbers, the passing game was obviously working, but after they fell behind 34-18 on a Marcos fumble that was recovered in the endzone for six, the Bearcats never quite could trim their deficit to anything closer than two scores.

“We knew coming in that they were no slouch, but when it came down to it, we had a game plan,” senior offensive and defensive lineman Rudy King said. “It really stinks that we couldn’t come out on top, but they’re a tough team and I’m proud to say we gave it our best.”

The loss brought the end of the prep football careers of seven seniors, many of whom were part of last year’s state title team and got back to the championship again in 2019.

While those players certainly felt the immediate hurt that comes with a season-ending, championship game loss, those seniors, such as King, can look back and say they were a part of Milford-Cissna Park history.

“Coming out of Crescent City, where I went to grade school, I wasn’t sure at first where I was going to go to high school — I didn’t know if I was going to go to Cissna Park, Iroquois West or Watseka,” King said. “When I was a little kid, all I went to was Bearcat games, and all I wanted to be was a Bearcat. The fact that I was able to help make a mark on this organization is so impressive and something I needed to do.”

Schwartz echoed King’s sentiments and added context to a situation that saw a program struggling to field a complete team turn into a back-to-back state finalist.

“Our community has come a long way, these players have come a long way,” Schwartz said. “These guys took beatings as younger kids — the freshmen and sophomore years for these seniors … no one has any idea what these kids have been through. To get to where we’re at right now, we’re really happy.

“They’ll look back later on and smile about it. We’ll have a good time with it.”

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