WINNEBAGO – After running the gauntlet in what is considered one the top 3A leagues (Big Northern) in state, undefeated Winnebago found out just how tough the fifth-place finisher in the Big Rivers was.
The Indians, ranked No. 2 in the state and seeded No. 1 in 3A, barely held on to beat 15 seed Peru St. Bede 34-25 in the opening round of the IHSA playoffs. St. Bede (5-5) had been the 255 team of 256 qualifying for the playoffs.
“St. Bede played a phenomenal game,” Winnebago coach Mark Helm said. “They matched up with us physically and were more ready to play than we were.”
The Bruins stunned Winnebago by taking a 19-15 lead at halftime. Two quick touchdowns early in the third quarter by Nolan Peterson gave ‘Bago a 28-19 lead they would not relinquish.
“We executed our game plan, but they got the scores when they needed them,” St. Bede coach John Bellino said.
After Winnebago regained the lead 28-19, the Bruins closed to within 28-25 on its next possession on a Justin Shaw 24-yard touchdown run on fourth down.
St. Bede then caught a break, as an Indian 30-yard gain was wiped out by a holding penalty and Nick Needs forced a fumble on the very next play that was recovered by Brady Booker.
Taking over at ‘Bago’s 33-yard line, Shaw ran 13 yards and quarterback Jack Brady found Braidy Shipp for nine yards. With the Indians reeling, St. Bede appeared to be on the verge of taking back the lead.
However, a second-and-1 at the 11-yard line turned into a missed opportunity as a 5-yard penalty for not having seven players at the line of scrimmage nullified a Michael Bellino first-down run.
St. Bede ended up turning the ball over on downs.
The Bruins came up with another golden opportunity early in the fourth quarter after stopping the Indians at their own 30-yard line on a fourth-down attempt. Again though, the potential go-ahead touchdown turned into a four-and-out.
“Our kids played their hearts out, but we’re not a good catch-up team,” Bellino said.
St. Bede continued to shut down the vaunted Indian offensive attack, forcing three fourth-quarter punts, leading a chain-gang member to comment that he’s never seen anyone tackle Winnebago as well as the youthful Bruins were doing.
“They’re run-oriented and we felt we can play with them,” Bellino said.
“We underestimated them,” admitted ‘Bago fullback Sean Ward.
Zack Beck had consecutive interceptions for the Indians, thwarting St. Bede scoring chances in the fourth quarter. The Bruins advanced into Winnebago territory five times in the second half, but could convert those chances into one touchdown.
“Their kid (Brady) throws a nice ball, but our kids stepped up when they had to,” Helm said.
After Beck’s second interception, Michael Pate tacked on an 11-yard touchdown run to make it 35-24 in favor of the Indians.
“They gave us all we could handle,” Pate said. “They were fired up and we were flat.”
Winnebago took an 8-0 lead on its first drive, but St. Bede make first straight first down plays to close to within 8-7.
Shaw went for 13, 20 and 20 yards, Brady and Shipp connected for 13 yards and Bellino capped the 77-yard drive off with a 13-yard run.
The teams then traded scores, with a Brady 33-yard pass to Shaw making it 15-13 in favor of ‘Bago.
Costly penalties by the Indians then kept a St. Bede drive alive that started at the 13-yard line. A 48-yard pass from Brady to Shaw moved the ball into ‘Bago territory. Bellino went for 12 yards and finished the drive off with a 2-yard touchdown for the 19-15 lead with 1:24 left in the half.
After the game, it was an emotionally taxing time for the Bellinos. John Bellino fought back the tears, realizing that it was the last high school game ever to be played by one of his three boys.
“It’s my last kid,” Bellino said. “It’s hard on me. Michael and I were so close.”
For the first time in school history, Winnebago recorded its 10th victory.