The No. 4 Effingham Flaming Hearts clinched at least a share of the Apollo Conference title Friday night, when they defeated the No. 8 Mt. Zion Braves, 34-21.
The only way the Hearts don’t walk away with sole ownership of the conference title would be with a loss to Lincoln next Friday night.
“In my mind we are [conference champions],” said Effingham head coach Brett Hefner. “I don’t know if they said they were going to have a conference championship or not, but we’ll buy the plaque. I think we have a budget for it if need be.”
With the win, they avenged their only loss on an otherwise-perfect regular season resume from last season.
“Toughness and resiliency,” said Hefner. “We’ve got a quarterback that played pretty much the whole game with a broken hand. To have everything that they’ve been through over however many months, to have a meaningful game, speaks volumes of those kids.
“We talk all the time about being the toughest team. I think our kids were the definition of toughness tonight.”
The Flaming Hearts defense forced Mt. Zion to punt from midfield on their first drive of the game.
What helped Effingham early on was its ability to convert on late downs, converting a pair of third-and-7s, as well as a fourth-and-9 from 16 yards out to Tristin Duncan, who juggled the ball but held onto it going into the endzone for a touchdown to take a 7-0 lead with 3 minutes, 47 seconds remaining in the opening quarter.
But as they’ve been known to do, the Braves answered quick, with quarterback Ashton Summers finding Christian Keyeha on the first play of the drive for a 64-yard touchdown to tie the game at seven.
The Hearts looked to be marching down the field on their next drive, with Chase Woomer taking the first handoff 26 yards to midfield. On third-and-5, Woomer converted with a 6-yard rush to Mt. Zion’s 39-yard line.
But Effingham was assessed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to make it first-and-25 on their own 44-yard line.
The Braves were able to get pressure when Nate Thompson dropped back to pass, hitting him as he threw with the ball being picked off by Frank Tyrolt and taken the other way for a 44-yard interception return for a touchdown to put the Braves up 14-7 with four seconds remaining in the first quarter.
Effingham stuck to the gameplan of pounding the ball, with Trevor Donsbach rushing for first downs of 14 twice. The Hearts got some help when, on Donsbach’s second first-down run, the Braves were assessed a horse collar personal foul penalty to make it first-and-10 at the Mt. Zion 13-yard line with 10:17 remaining in the half.
“They’re always one play away from scoring, whether they’re on the 50, or on the two,” Hefner said. “We knew that would be the case and have to control the clock and the ball. I didn’t know if we’d be able to. We’re all in the same boat. You don’t have enough games to know what you’ve got or what you don’t have.”
Donsbach picked up another first down from the 13 to the three-yard line to set up first-and-goal for the Hearts. After a gain of one, Woomer punched it in from two yards out with fullback Jacob Stoneburner helping clear the way. But the extra point was missed, leaving the Hearts trailing 14-13 with 8:55 to go.
The Hearts attempted an onside kick following the touchdown, but Mt. Zion recovered the kick on the Effingham 49-yard line. Mt. Zion wasn’t able to make Effingham pay, as Keyeha was flagged for offensive pass interference before a false start backed them up five more yards.
After a second-and-30 pass fell incomplete, Effingham’s Shawn Cochran came up with a sack to force a Mt. Zion punt on fourth-and-39.
The Hearts faced a third-and-5 on the Mt. Zion 45-yard line and converted on a jet sweep to Keegan Baker. They continued the drive and got to the Mt. Zion 16-yard line after a facemask, but were backed up on a holding call on the next play. But the Hearts got back into prime position when Mt. Zion was called for a pass interference to put the ball on Mt. Zion’s 15.
Thompson found Austin Herboth on a key third-and-1 to make it first-and-goal from the 3 with 2:48 left in the half.
Facing a third-and-goal from the one, Stoneburner got the carry up the guy for a 1-yard touchdown to put the Hearts up 20-14.
But with 1:34 remaining, the Braves had plenty of time to get down into scoring poisition and did just that when Summers found Reagan Mason on a 26-yard completion over the middle.
The Effingham defense stood tall, not allowing another completion with a huge pass break up by Parker Wolfe that helped force a fourth-and-10. The Braves brought out their kicker Jonathan Oliger for a 42-yard attempt, but was blocked by Cochran. The Hearts took a 20-14 lead into the halftime break.
“[Cochran] is a kid that had to wait until he was a senior,” Hefner said. “They just want to play.”
Thompson had injured his hand in the first half, making Effingham’s ground game even more important for the second half.
With the Flaming Hearts in the driver’s seat, they were in no hurry to score after receiving the second-half kickoff. They ran 14 plays for 80 yards and capped it off with a 4-yard touchdown from Donsbach to make it 27-14, taking 8:04 off the clock before the Braves could even touch the ball.
“I think that drive kind of established things for us,” Hefner said. “But they’re so potent offensively, you never feel comfortable.”
While Mt. Zion didn’t catch Effingham with a quick strike, they did move the ball deep into Effingham territory and faced second-and-6 from the Effingham 8-yard line as time expired in the third.
Trevon Benavides came up with a big pass breakup on third down to force fourth-and-6. The Hearts were able to generate pressure, with Cochran and Dalton Fox forcing Summers to throw the ball quick and fell incomplete, turning the ball over and giving the Hearts possession on their own eight with 11:52 remaining in the fourth.
Effingham was able to keep running the ball and was helped out by a Mt. Zion personal foul. They did face a fourth-and-3 at the Mt. Zion 17-yard line, but was converted with an 11-yard rush from Woomer.
They faced third-and-four with 3:04 remaining and once again was converted with a 9-yard rush from Woomer to the 2-yard line. The Hearts called Stoneburner’s number one more time, punching it in from two yards out for his second touchdown of his last home game, to make it 24-14 with 1:56 remaining.
“We put that in this week. It was important for me,’ Hefner said. “I wanted him to get a chance to score. He started at fullback as a sophomore and has been a leader defensively for us. I asked everyone what they wanted to run and they all said 12 Dive, so we ran 12 Dive.”
“We run that package at the three or two-yard line,” Stoneburner said. “Growing up going through JFL, I played everywhere, so it was something I picked up and kept rolling with it. I can’t even explain the feeling. It feels amazing. It’s football and what we do. We definitely had some feelings from last year we had to take out.”
Mt. Zion was able to score on a 29-yard pass to Mason to make it 34-21 with 19.7 seconds left, but Effingham recovered the ensuing onside kick and taking a knee to run out the clock and earn the win.
Donsbach and Woomer ended with over 100 yards rushing.
“Those two guys just kept playing,” Hefner said. “The physicality just wares on people. We don’t want to be fun to play against.”
After Hefner spoke to the team, Thompson spoke to the team and awarded the game ball to Jacob Briggerman, who was forced to miss the season with a form of bone cancer.
“There’s a thing about that group of kids,” Hefner said. “That group is such a tight-knit group and always have been. They’ve had a lot of those guys that played as sophomores and a lot that had to wait until they were seniors.
“That group from a perseverance standpoint, think about the wins they’ve been a part of. With what Jacob is going through and what Tristin had to go through, I can’t say enough about them. As good as they are as football players, they’re unbelievable kids.”