Althoff seized the initiative Saturday, only to see the Rochester Rockets take it back.
The top-seeded Rockets scored 20 consecutive points in the second half and pulled away for a 41-23 victory over the Crusaders in the second round of the Class 4A playoffs.
“This is pretty hard,” Althoff senior Justin Strong said of the season-ending defeat. “I wanted to get it done for my (teammates), and my older brother (Bryson), who lost last year. And I wanted to get it done for Coach T (Ken Turner). It hurts.
“I feel like we had the momentum, but we had to keep on pushing. ... We just didn’t do it.”
Eighth-seeded Althoff (9-2) trailed 21-6 after one quarter and 21-16 at halftime, but it grabbed a 23-21 lead on senior Melvin Brock’s 13-yard touchdown run on a reverse handoff from senior Richard Cosey with 8:02 remaining in the third quarter. It marked the first time this season that Rochester had faced a deficit.
The Rockets (11-0), however, who have won six of the past seven Class 4A state championships, needed just five plays to regain the lead, moving ahead 27-23 on senior Nic Baker’s 30-yard touchdown pass to senior Jayden Reed with 6:51 to play in the third quarter.
Althoff was then forced to punt after a series that included two holding penalties and a false start, and on the Rockets’ next possession, Baker threw to the right corner of the end zone. The ball was tipped into the air by Althoff senior cornerback Pierce Lyons, and Reed came down with it for a 35-yard touchdown and a 34-23 lead.
“What a play. Reed stayed with it,” said Rochester coach Derek Leonard, whose team will play host to Herrin in the quarterfinals Saturday.
While the game wasn’t as close as Althoff’s 48-47 loss to the Rockets in the quarterfinals last season in Belleville, it was no less painful for Turner.
“When we took the lead, and then they took the lead back, it kind of fell apart on us,” Turner said. “We had that one drive when penalties started to mount up on us. We haven’t had that type of game, when we had that many penalties, all year. We’ve been great on that this year. Holding calls are holding calls. They could be called every play.
“But hey, we fought hard. They’re a great football team.”
The Rockets put the game out of reach at 41-23 when Baker recovered his own fumble and sprinted into the end zone for an 18-yard touchdown run.
Baker, despite throwing his first interception of the season and losing a fumble, rushed for four touchdowns and passed for two. He threw for 347 yards.
The turnovers by Rochester were its first two of the season.
“He’s the best I’ve ever seen,” Leonard said. “He’s awesome. I couldn’t be more proud of a kid. What a player. He’s unbelievable.”
Rochester went ahead 7-0 on Baker’s 3-yard run, but Althoff answered on Strong’s 55-yard touchdown. The PAT was blocked, and the Crusaders trailed 7-6.
Baker had touchdown runs of 8 yards and 5 yards to make it 21-6, but Althoff’s defense settled in, and the Crusaders got within 21-9 on junior Stone Galloway’s 29-yard field goal.
On Althoff’s next possession, junior quarterback Hayes Taylor broke through the middle and raced untouched to the end zone for a 50-yard score to make it 21-16.
But after Brock’s go-ahead touchdown to start the second half, little went Althoff’s way.
On one play, the referee got in the way on a third-and-23 run by Cosey. The play went for 6 yards but would have gone for much more. Instead, the Crusaders punted, and Rochester turned the possession into the touchdown that featured the sensational catch by Reed.
“Big plays,” Turner said. “We got up there and tipped the ball. We tried to knock it down. Actually, it was a great play by our guy (Lyons). But it was tipped, it went right to (Reed’s) hands, and he caught it.”