REPUBLIC -- The Helias Crusaders checked a lot of boxes this football season.
They won the city championship for the fourth consecutive season, captured the Central Missouri Activities Conference crown for a third time and won a district title for the first time in three tries in Class 5 to advance into the state bracket.
“This is a marker we couldn’t hit last year or the year before,” Helias coach Chris Hentges said Saturday afternoon after the Crusaders fell 28-21 to the Republic Tigers in the Class 5 quarterfinals. “We just couldn’t take that next step we wanted.
“I’m proud of this year’s team, we played hard and fought through a lot of adversity.”
The Crusaders overcame the loss of senior starting quarterback Sam Wyrick to an injury in Week 5 to finish with a record of 8-1 in the regular season. After a first-round bye in the District 5 Tournament, the Crusaders posted wins against Washington and Capital City to get into the Class 5 state bracket.
In front of a packed house Saturday, the Crusaders got off to a good start by scoring on their first possession.
Austin Weaver, who stepped in for Wyrick at quarterback, led Helias on a seven-play drive capped by a 15-yard touchdown run by the sophomore.
But Republic had a quick answer, returning the ensuing kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown to tie the game. The Tigers then recovered an onside kick, turning that into a touchdown and a 14-7 lead. They recovered a second onside kick after the score, and found the end zone for a third time to take a 21-7 lead less than two minutes into the second quarter.
“I knew we were going to have to play a really good game to win,” Hentges said. “You can see how good a football team they on tape.
“We could have won, but not the way we played.”
Weaver ran for a 37-yard touchdown on Helias’ next possession to cut the deficit to 21-14. But Republic scored on its next possession and took a 28-14 advantage into halftime.
It was the second time the Crusaders had been down at the half in a game this season. The first time was back in Week 4, when Helias trailed 30-7 against Class 5 No. 1 Cardinal Ritter in St. Louis. The Crusaders mounted a furious comeback in that game, scoring a touchdown in the final :10 to cut the deficit to 30-29 before a try for a 2-point conversion failed.
“We’ve been down further before and we had the fight in us then, we could do it again,” Hentges said. “Keep fighting, keep fighting, believe in your teammates.”
A 1-yard touchdown run by Mason French in the final minute of the third quarter pulled the Crusaders to within a touchdown at 28-21.
In the fourth quarter, the Crusaders looked to have a chance to pull within a point of the Tigers on a 30-yard pass from Weaver to Swan that ended in the end zone with 3:37 remaining. But the Crusaders were flagged for illegal motion on the play. A pair of sacks and an incompletition ended the threat and the Tigers were able to run out the clock to seal the seven-point victory.
“We made a game of it, we just didn’t make the plays we needed to down the stretch,” Hentges said. “I’m proud of the way we fought back in the second half.”
It was a tough end to a very good season for Helias, which ended the regular season at No. 3 in the Class 5 Missouri Media Rankings.
“It’s always hard to say goodbye to your seniors,” Hentges said. “You invest so much, it’s like a family because you spend so much time together.
“They mean a lot to us, they mean a lot to each other. And that’s what makes it so tough.”
The Crusaders finish with a record of 10-2.
“I’m proud of this team, a 10-2 season is a very good season in a big class,” Hentges said. “It was a step forward for our program this year."