October 15, 2009

Illinois team ends 90-year losing streak

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Jake Steele knew the 25-yard field goal wasn't going to be easy. Not on a muddy field.

He knew what the scoreboard said. Down by one, seconds remaining.

And most of all, he knew about the history. La Salle-Peru High in La Salle, Ill., had not beaten Geneseo High since 1919 - despite annual meetings.

Steele, like all of his teammates, was eager for a chance to break the streak. He had been waiting all week.

"I was telling people the day before that I hoped it came down to a field goal," he told the La Salle News-Tribune newspaper after the game last Friday night. "I wanted that challenge."

As his team marched down the field, closing in on the goal line, Steele admitted he was hoping it would come down to him.

"I was on the sideline literally praying to God to give me a shot," he said. "He came through for me."

Geneseo, which had survived many close calls during the incredible streak, wasn't about to go down easily. It called timeout. It wanted Steele to think about the 90 years of history he was up against. Not to mention the extra-point attempt he missed earlier in the game.

****

The world in 1919: A peace conference opened in Versailles, France, to work out the details of World War I. The League of Nations was being created. ... A researcher in Manchester, England, split an atom. The atomic age was upon us. ... Lenin had come to power. Hitler and Mussolini had not. Peace was only going to be temporary.

****

La Salle-Peru had been close to ending the streak before. Especially this year's senior class.

In 2007, they lost just 3-0 in a regular-season game.

The teams met again in the playoffs and went to overtime. LaSalle-Peru scored first to take the lead but couldn't hang on in a 28-21 loss.

Then there was last year when the team had a 24-6 lead in the second half only to see it evaporate in what became a 32-24 loss.

"We've played them four times now in three years, and every game has come down to one play here, one play there," head coach Joe Sassano told the paper. "The series we've had over the last three years has been phenomenal."

But don't think for a second to seniors didn't know about the history.

"When you're born and raised, L-P/Geneseo, that's what you learn when you grow up," senior running back Eric Jenkins told the paper. "You're supposed to beat Geneseo. Even though you don't, you're supposed to."

Something, however, always seems to happen. And it seemed that way again.

La Salle-Peru a 21-17 lead at half, then scored the first 14 points of the third quarter to push the lead to 35-17.

Geneseo answered with a score but missed on a two-point try. It was 35-23. Then it intercepted a pass in the end zone to thwart a LaSalle-Peru drive. It quickly answered with a 76-yard pass play and a 10-yard touchdown run, but missed on a PAT. It was 35-29.

Geneseo wasn't done. It drove down the field in the final minutes for a touchdown - and a PAT.

It had taken the lead, 36-35. There was just 1:49 remaining.

****

Life in the U.S. in 1919: A stamp cost just 3 cents. Bread? 9 cents a loaf. A steak? Try 34 cents. A dollar went far. ... A car cost just $826. A gallon of gas? 25 cents. A house? $5,626. That's why the average income was just $1,125 a year. ... The population just recently went over 100 million, with nearly 3 million new births a year. The times, however, were a changin'. Prohibition was passed.

****

La Salle-Peru quarterback Sam Renk wasn't going to be denied.

"We knew we weren't going to let it happen again," he said. "The offense struggled at times, but this group of seniors, it was crazy. We just came together."

Jenkins, who finished with 190 yards rushing and a touchdown, had a couple of big runs.

Renk, who finished with 251 yards passing and two touchdowns, found Mike Bergagna on a 19-yard pass play.

Then there were pass-interference and roughing-the-passer calls against Geneseo, putting the ball on the 10 with 12 seconds left.

Jenkins ran the ball to the center and La Salle-Peru called timeout. And called on Steele.

Snap. Hold. Kick.

Jim Cogdal, who covered the game for the News-Tribune, described it this way: "Steele kicked one of the ugliest boots the sure-footed specialist has seen all season. It was a line drive that almost was wobbling as it flew through the air.''

After 90 years, it didn't matter. It went through the uprights.

One last kickoff and one last defensive play later, La Salle-Peru had ended a losing streak for the ages.

Now it was time to celebrate.

"It's the best feeling of my life," Steele said. "It's the best feeling ever."

Renk ranked it atop all of his victories.

"I've got to be honest with you," he said. "It feels like we just won a state championship.

"It feels amazing."

Jenkins tried to put it into perspective.

"We were born to do this," he said. "We didn't win it for ourselves. We won it for all those stories about Geneseo."

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