Scott Horner has looked back into the faces of his Columbia Eagles following a season-ending loss 18 times now in his career, 14 times in the IHSA playoffs.
More than any other season before, though, what Horner saw looking back after Saturday’s playoff loss was the future of his program.
The Eagles fell to Taylorville, 45-23, in the second round of the IHSA Class 4A playoffs, but just seven seniors walked off the damp turf field in central Illinois for the last time wearing Columbia blue. The core of a team that won seven regular season games and one more in the post season will be back for another run in 2019.
“I think where we have to grow are in the areas that don’t have anything to do with ability,” said Horner, who has led Columbia to the playoffs eight straight seasons. “Our training has got to be better, our practice mentality has got to be better and more consistent. If we can get to that point with some of those guys, we can be pretty good next year.
“It’s like I told the guys, losing never gets fun, so if this doesn’t motivate them there’s something wrong.”
In the meantime, it was during third quarter siege that Taylorville showed why it was the No. 1 seed in the 4A bracket.
Columbia closed to within on score midway through the third quarter when the coach’s sons, Nic and Sam Horner, connected on an 18-yard touchdown pass to make the score 25-17. But Taylorville (11-0) scored three unanswered touchdowns to take command and earn a quarterfinal showdown next weekend against defending state champion Rochester.
The Eagles’ season ends at 8-3.
“They are a really good football team and sometimes you just have to tip your cap,” said Sam Horner, who led Columbia with six receptions for 85 yards and booted a 37-yard field goal in the second quarter. “I feel like everybody out there played their hardest on every single play. We just fell short.”
Taylorville brought a big-play reputation into the game and only added to it.
Senior quarterback Brandon Odam was an efficient 19 of 26 passing for 357 yards and five touchdowns. His loan mistake, an interception thrown into the hands of Columbia linebacker Eli Wagner, set up a Donavan Bieber touchdown that put the Eagles on top early, 7-0.
But he connected on touchdown passes of 15, 61, 50, 23 and 79 yards. For of those went to senior wide out Justin Wright, who finished with 11 catches for 199 yards. The other, a 79-yard back breaker to Yemi Odugbesan, made the score 45-17 with 8:03 left to play.
Bieber, who led the Eagles with 77 rushing yards on 19 carries, closed the scoring with a 19-yard touchdown run.
Nic Horner was 16 for 24 passing for 182 yards and ran for 70 more yards on eight carries. His fumble at the goal line ended a fourth quarter drive.
“I don’t see No. 5 lowering his shoulders very often, but he went for it there in the endzone and the kid just put his helmet on the ball and made a good play,” Scott Horner said. “It’s a credit to our guys for not giving up. They played their tails off and I’m proud of them.”
That’s little solace to his son and top wide receiver, who’s not ready for the season to be over.
“It sucks because I love t play with all these seniors,” said Sam Horner. “But don’t get me wrong, next year is going to be fun because we have a lot of returners coming back.”