CHAMPAIGN — A little less than a year ago, after the Byron Tigers were eliminated from the Class 3A state playoffs on a last-minute score in the semifinals, T-shirts with the saying “Finish the Job” began to circulate around town.
Over the course of the next 12 months, more and more, the phrase showed up. On more shirts, on signs along the street, on lockers in the school’s hallway: it read “Finish the Job.”
On Friday in Champaign, however, they couldn’t quite do it.
“Unfortunately tonight, the ball just didn’t bounce our way,” Byron head coach Jeff Boyer said after his team suffered a 24-20 setback to Monticello in the Class 3A state title game. “We didn’t finish on some things, and that cost us.”
Not this time
Byron had finished the job only once before, when the Tigers steamrolled everybody, including St. Joseph Ogden (41-8) in the finals back in 1999.
Boyer was the offensive leader and quarterback of the ‘99 Tigers, and Sean Considine was the star running back and defensive back. But this time, with Boyer and Considine calling the shots as coaches instead of players, Byron couldn’t slam the door.
The Tigers appeared to be the better team in the first half, yet for the first time this year, they trailed at the break. Monticello’s 95-yard screen pass and then a 28-yard field goal that clanged off, first the upright, then the crossbar, before going in with 23 seconds left in the second quarter, put Byron on its heels.
The Tigers took a brief lead in the third quarter after a nine-play, 50-yard TD drive to open the half, but it lasted less than two minutes. They spent the rest of the day chasing the Sages.
And they just couldn't catch them.
What about next time?
This one sure hurt.
“It’s going to burn slow inside,” lineman Tyler Elsbury said after earning one of Byron’s six tackles for loss, as well as a key first-half pass breakup. “This one stings a lot, just like last year.”
But the Tigers brought four of their star players to the podium after Friday’s loss, and all four were juniors: Elsbury, the 6-foot-5, 295-pound lineman who helped pave the way on one side of the ball, and shut down opponents on the other, all year long; halfback Isaac Stickler (139 yards rushing and a TD); wingback Drake Snodgrass (115 yards of offense and a TD); QB Ben Carlson (2-for-4 for 65 yards passing).
All stars for Byron's 13-1 team this season, and all juniors. All are back next year. They’re just hoping they get another shot at it, and that the next time, they can finish the job.
“I really never felt out of it, and I really felt like we were going to come out on top. But we didn’t,” Stickler said. “We’ve just got to work even harder this offseason, and I pray we can make it back.”
Jay Taft: 815-987-1384; email@example.com; @JayTaft