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On Friday, the high school team from Overland Park, KS, beat South Bay (CA) 21-17 in the quarterfinals and then knocked off Brownsburg (IN) 27-26 in the semifinals. A day later, the Saints clinched the Tier II championship on kicks over Charlotte Catholic (NC) after tying the final at 14-14 to end regulation. You can't get much closer than that -- three victories by a total of four points.
"I told the boys, something that's worth getting isn't easy," STA head coach Tim Kluempers said. "And these guys, I am so, so proud of them. For the last seven years we've gotten up at 5 in the morning in the winter time and run, three days a week, in the school gym. And I just told them... nobody does that. It... kind of makes it a little bit sweet because I know how hard the guys worked."
The Tier II semifinal was about as dramatic as it could have been, with Sam Gasparovich kicking a penalty goal at the end of the game. Against Charlotte Catholic, it was once again tight. Catholic had several scoring opportunities inside the Saints' 22 but failed to convert. Catholic didn't try to kick for goal -- mainly because the regular goalkicker went off early with an injury. Not confident of getting points with the boot, Catholic opted for the lineout, misfired on two, and was stopped two other times.
Aquinas, meanwhile, was getting points. Gasparovich slotted three goals in the first half, all from long range. The Saints received some hard yards from front-rowers Xavier Doering and Clayton Ginther as well as locks Drake Staudenmeyer and Wyatt Keena. They also found several key plays by Conrad Diebold and the speedy Shawn Doherty. Then, paced by Reid Brandt at No. 8 and flyhalf Greg O'Shields, Catholic began to find some space and started getting penalties. Scrumhalf Dan McElravey was ready to tap quickly, and a somewhat tired-looking Aquinas was slow to respond.
Finally, McElravey tapped and hit an onrushing O'Shields who busted through for the try. Prop Jack White, the substitute kicker, drop-kicked it over to make the score 9-7.
Aquinas replied with its best sequence of the game, using forwards and backs, and finally seeing fullback Matt Peterson race down the sideline and stretch over.
But with time almost up, Catholic kept tapping penalties, and eventually Brandt powered over. White kicked the conversion, and it was all tied up 14-14. Gasparovich had a couple of late penalty chances but missed.
Near the end of full time, Brandt chased on a 22 dropout and flipped Aquinas flanker Landon Delaney over onto his neck. Delaney left with a shoulder injury, and Brandt was red-carded. Catholic would have to survive overtime a man down. Aquinas was camped out inside the Catholic 22 for much of the overtime but somehow couldn't punch it in. No. 8 Ryan Jurczak, who had been superb all week, especially in the lineout and reading the game, fumbled a try-scoring chance and was clearly gutted at the mistake.
Late in overtime, Kluempers then pulled his mater stroke. He subbed out some starters, including Petersen, the try-scorer, and put in Jack Regan, Spencer Charlton, and Hank Sheeley. That would prove critical. Overtime ended with the score 14-14, so now five players from each team would have to kick penalty kicks from the 22-meter line. Only players on the field at the end of the game could do the kicking. This is where Kluempers had made the critical move. All three of those subs mentioned were in the list of kickers. Gasparovich went up first and hit his kick. Charlotte missed, and Charlton hit his kick to make it 2-0 for Aquinas. After Charlotte and Aquinas both missed, Will Clouden struck a clutch kick for Charlotte Catholic to make it 2-1.
And now came the big moment. After coming on for Petersen, junior Hank Sheeley looked like a player who was dying to make an impact. And he did. Sheeley left-footed the fourth-round kick over, putting the pressure squarely on Charlotte Catholic's shoulders. Now Catholic needed to make both of its remaining kicks. They missed, and Aquinas won it, thanks on no small part to a massive effort from the starters and some crucial contributions from the subs… and the coaches who put them on the field.
"We were down," Gasparovich said. "But we never stopped fighting. The boys kept pushing. We never gave up. All of the guys have complete faith in each other.
"It means so much [to have fans here]," lock Drake Staudenmeyer said. "There were people from our school. There were alumni here. We never have a big crowd out at nationals. To have this crowd out here… was amazing."
And winning three ever-closer games in a row is pretty amazing, too.