BELLEVILLE — Using his ability to improvise on the fly Saturday, punter Jeremy Miller extricated the Althoff Crusaders out of a potentially dangerous situation.
With his team trailing 14-7 early in the second half of a 2A quarterfinal game against Casey-Westfield, Miller's first attempt at a low punt into the wind from deep in his own end bounced right off the helmet of Althoff teammate Zach Donaldson.
Undaunted, Miller scrambled quickly to pick the ball up and somehow got off a second punt on the run that rolled dead at the Althoff 40-yard line.
"I was trying to kick the ball low so it could cut through the wind," Miller said. "I couldn't believe that it happened, I just knew that I had to go get the ball and get rid of it again so they couldn't put points up."
Special teams success and failure played a huge role in Althoff's 19-17 victory over Casey-Westfield.
The Crusaders had another punt blocked that led to the go-ahead field goal for Casey with 58.6 seconds remaining. Casey handed Althoff a safety early in the fourth quarter when a punt snap went nearly 30 yards before going through the back of the end zone.
Althoff won the game on freshman Donovan Gagen's 40-yard field goal that bounced off the crossbar and went through with 0.4 seconds remaining.
Miller's quick thinking on the botched punt play helped the Crusaders avoid falling further behind than 14-7 early in the third quarter.
"I knew that I couldn't get tackled because then they would have great field position," Miller said. "Luckily I got it off without it being blocked. I've never had to do that before, not even in practice. It was just instinct, I knew I was about to get tackled and had to get rid of it."
Miller said he has been punting since his seventh-grade year, learning the finer points of the position from former college punter Dave Rigali.
Althoff coach Ken Turner gave Miller credit for his improvisational skills.
"He was smart enough to go back and get it and re-kick it again," Turner said. "A lot of people wouldn't think of that. His mind was spinning because the play was going so face and he knew he had to do something."
Before the last-second field goal try, holder Michael Harris said he spoke with Gagen and the team's long-snapper, Nolan Abernathy.
"I was talking to him and Donovan about the perfect snap, perfect hold, perfect kick," Harris said. "I thought it was good right when he kicked it. It was crazy....really nerve-racking."
This will be Althoff's first appearance in the semifinals since 2002, a 27-21 Class 5A loss at home to Pontiac. The Crusaders have not reached the state finals since winning back-to-back 3A state championships in 1989 and 1990.
Since 2005, 13 metro-east teams have reached the semifinals with a 3-10 record to show for it. East St. Louis won in 2008 and then won the 7A state title, while Columbia won its semifinal battle in 2007 before losing to Plano in the 3A state title game.
Mater Dei won a 4A semifinal game in 2006 before losing to Addison Driscoll in the state championship game.
Run-heavy squad up next for Althoff
Althoff's staunch run defense figures to be tested heavily in a 2 p.m. semifinal showdown Saturday against Camp Point Central-Southeastern (12-0) at Lindenwood Stadium in Belleville.
Central-Southeastern runs a ground-hugging double-wing offense led by talented running backs Dalton Heubner (nearly 1,500 yards and 22 touchdowns), Douglas Weese (1,102 yards, 18 TDs and sophomore fullback Bobby Keltz (563 yards, 7 TDs).
Located east of Quincy and just over three hours away from Belleville, Central-Southeastern piled up 320 rushing yards on a whopping 61 carries Saturday in a 35-28 quarterfinal victory at Du Quoin.
"Everyone knows we're going to run the football," Central-Southeastern coach Brad Dixon told the Southern Illinoisan after the Du Quoin win. "I think we threw the ball maybe twice; we threw it five times last week and three the week before. "We feel the guys up front are good enough that we can run behind them and the defense knows it's coming."
Big year for local officials
For the first time in recent memory, two metro-east officiating crews from the Southwestern Athletic Officials Organization will be working the state finals.
In Class 8A, the locally-based crew includes Tim Hogan (Maryville), Terry Gallaher (Belleville), Dan Kampwerth (Breese), Dave Collins (Wood River) and Tim Spangenberg (Edwardsville).
Working the Class 4A title game will be Jeff Harris (Belleville), Andy Speciale (Edwardsville), Tom Fay (Alton), Jay Smith (Vandalia) and Kevin Wallace (Brighton).
Both crews will also be working semifinal games on Saturday.
"I don't think we've ever had two crews make the finals since I've been around," said Jim Broadway, the officiating group's president.
Broadway said two additional Southwestern Athletic Officials Association crews will be working semifinal games on Saturday.
The first crew includes Kevin Poore (Belleville), Trent Purcell (Carlyle), Jim Kowzan (Hillsboro, Mo.), Rick Tolle and Dan Smith (Gillespie).
The second crew includes Jason Grey (Belleville), Jim Morrissey (Belleville(, Jason Unverzagt (Belleville), Mike Marshall (Roxana) and Greg Brown (Jerseyville).
Presdient of Southwestern Athletic Officials Assocaition
Contact reporter Norm Sanders at email@example.com or 239-2454.