LEBANON — The fairytale script almost became a reality for Carl Poelker and the McKendree University football team on Saturday against Saint Joseph's College.
The Bearcats nearly overcame an 18-point halftime deficit, and two potential go-ahead drives were stopped in Saint Joseph's territory in the five minutes as the visiting Pumas held on for a 24-19 victory in the season finale for both teams at Leemon Field. The Bearcats end the year with a 3-7 overall record and a 3-5 mark in their first season as members of the Great Lakes Valley Conference.
For Poelker it was a bittersweet moment as the contest put the wraps on a 17-year run as the head coach at McKendree. Back on Oct. 22, Poelker announced he would retire following the season. He has coached the Bearcats in every game since the school revived the program in 1996 after a 45-year absence from the gridiron. During that time, Poelker led McKendree to 117 wins, nine national playoff appearances and seven conference titles.
In a 31-year career as a collegiate head coach -- including a successful 14-year run at Millikin University -- Poelker amassed 205 victories.
"It's been a great run," said Poelker. "The administration, the staff, but most importantly the student-athletes, have made this so special. Even though we didn't win today, I'm proud of the guys. We overcame a lot of adversity today and played right up until the clock read all zeroes. There was never any quit in these guys today. If that's the last memory on the football field, then it's a great one to have."
McKendree trailed 24-6 at the intermission, but used a pair of third-quarter touchdowns to pull within five points. The Bearcats then embarked on a 15-play, 67-yard drive that reached the Saint Joseph's 18-yard line. McKendree elected to go for it on fourth down, but freshman quarterback Isaac Fisher (Washington, Ill./Washington) was sacked by the Pumas' Jevar Glover to end the drive with 4:34 remaining.
The Bearcats got the ball back at their own one-yard line following a punt with 58 seconds left. Fisher then completed three passes and used a 24-yard scramble to push the ball out to the Saint Joseph's 46-yard line with 12.6 seconds remaining. Fisher completed a short pass to sophomore wide receiver Pat Doty (Springfield, Ill./Springfield), who lateraled to freshman running back Cameron James (Edwardsville, Ill./Edwardsville) at the 42-yard line. James eluded one tackle, but not the second and was brought down in bounds. Out of timeouts, McKendree could not get to the line of scrimmage to run another play as time expired.
Fisher matched a season-high by throwing for 187 yards for the third different time this year. He completed 16-of-30 passes on the day. Fisher connected with five different receivers on the day. Doty, James and senior wide receiver Sean Rakers (New Baden, Ill./Wesclin) each had four catches to share team-high honors.
For Doty, the total extended his team record for receptions in a season to 39. He also finished the day with 28 receiving yards to boost his season total to 477. That mark stands third on the Bearcats' list.
James led McKendree with 91 yards on 19 carries. Freshman running back Jeruel Tayloradded 71 yards on 13 attempts, while sophomore running back Ryan Herring (Belleville East) registered 55 yards on the ground on just six rushes. As a team, McKendree piled up 262 yards rushing, which was the Bearcats' second-highest total in 2012.
Statistically, McKendree held a 449-391 edge in total offense. The Bearcats also had a season-high 27 first downs, which was 11 more than Saint Joseph's.
Saint Joseph's (6-5, 5-3 GLVC) opened the scoring late in the first quarter as Billy VandeMerkt tossed a 17-yard touchdown pass to Julian Walker with 2:43 left in the period. McKendree cut the deficit to 7-3 thanks to a 20-yard field goal by senior kicker Matt Kendall (O'Fallon) midway through the second quarter.
The Pumas extended the margin to 14-3 on a two-yard scoring run by Braxton Shelton on their next drive. Kendall brought McKendree within 14-6 on his second field goal of the quarter, a 36-yarder with 3:32 left until halftime. Saint Joseph's took the ensuing kickoff and marched 58 yards in seven plays, capped by a five-yard run by James Wilson to push the Pumas out to a 21-6 advantage.
McKendree then fumbled the kickoff following Wilson's score, and Saint Joseph's recovered at the Bearcats' 30-yard line. The Pumas drove down and added a 36-yard field goal by Gavin Voss with five seconds left until halftime for a 24-6 lead.
The Bearcats began their comeback bid in the middle stages of the third quarter when they embarked on a 12-play, 74-yard drive. Facing a first-and-goal from the Pumas' four-yard line, Fisher rolled to his left on a bootleg and scored with 3:40 left in the period. Kendall's point after brought the Bearcats within 24-13.
After Saint Joseph's next drive stalled, the Pumas punted to James, who fielded the ball at the Bearcats' 25-yard line. James raced down the left sideline, picked up two key blocks and eluded a pair of would-be tacklers near midfield and raced 75 yards for the touchdown. McKendree tried the two-point conversion, but Fisher's pass attempt was too strong for senior tight end Joe Santiago (Elmhurst, Ill./York), who caught the ball as he stepped out of the back of the end zone near the left corner.
Sophomore linebacker Bryce Colvinand junior linebacker Javari Murphy each posted a team-best eight tackles for McKendree. Junior defensive back Jamison Wilson added seven stops.
VandeMerkt threw for 227 yards on the day for Saint Joseph's, completing 21-of-28 pass attempts. Walker posted a game-high 15 receptions for 165 yards for the Pumas. Wilson matched James in the rushing department, piling up 91 yards on 14 carries.