DEKALB – Mike Papoccia had all bases covered except one – a small price to pay for success.
Papoccia ended his 34th season as head football coach at Newman in style, with a 40-13 victory against Staunton in the Class 2A championship game on Friday afternoon at Huskie Stadium on the campus of Northern Illinois University.
Basking in the glow of his fifth state championship, Papoccia wasn’t able to avoid the dumping of a huge water bucket over his head. He was shivering, but happy, in temperatures that were quickly going way south of freezing.
“I knew it was coming, but they got me,” Papoccia said. “You’d think by now I’d be able to figure out how to stay away, as long as I’ve been at this.”
While Papoccia is an old hand at this state championship thing, it was a new and special experience for this players.
“There’s not many words to describe this besides fantastic,” senior running back Jake Snow said. “You don’t get many opportunities to feel this way in life, and I’m just so happy.”
“It feels like a million bucks to do this with my buddies,” junior running back Dillan Heffelfinger said. “It’s what we’ve always wanted to do, what we came here to do. I’m just so happy right now.”
With the exception of some occasionally shaky pass defense, the Comets (13-1) were dominant on both sides of the ball.
Newman racked up 425 yards rushing, with Snow (17 carries, 172 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Heffelfinger (19-155, 2 TDs) leading the way. It was a new Class 2A title game rushing mark, eclipsing the 384 yards posted by Seneca in 1990.
Newman was almost as impressive on defense. The Comets limited Staunton to 13 yards rushing, another new 2A mark. The old record of 46 yards was set in 1975 by Decatur St. Teresa against Stockton.
“Obviously we ran into a buzzsaw today,” Staunton coach Mike Parmentier said. “We knew their history and their tradition, and they’ve just got a fantastic football team. They were absolutely the best team we’ve seen all year, and we just couldn’t match up with them physically.”
Newman scored on its first five possessions, all on drives ranging from two to six plays, to stake itself to a 34-13 halftime advantage. Snow and Heffelfinger each scored twice in that span, while sophomore fullback Brady Rude added a 1-yard plunge.
The Comets had 231 yards rushing on just 21 carries by halftime. Snow opened the scoring parade with a 51-yard TD run on the game’s fourth offensive play.
Newman now has five state championships, tying it with Stillman Valley, Montini and Maine South for the eighth-most in IHSA history. Stillman got its fifth right after Newman, 43-41 in overtime against St. Joseph-Ogden. Montini goes for title No. 6 today against Sacred Heart-Griffin.
Staunton (9-5), meanwhile, ends the season with its first title-game berth. The Bulldogs’ previous best finish was a quarterfinal-round loss in 2010.
This year’s playoff run was a surprise, considering Staunton lost its last three regular-season games and squeaked into the playoffs with a 5-4 record. The Bulldogs were just the fourth team to enter the playoffs with a 5-4 record and make it to the finals.
“We are the Cinderella story,” Sitko said. “We made it here, and I couldn’t be happier for our guys. We had a heck of a run.”
“It just shows we never quit, never got down on ourselves, even at 5-4 coming into the postseason,” Bruhn added. “We’ve been dreaming about this since we were little, and it came true.”