LUCAS – With Lucas up 27-14 midway through the third quarter in Friday night’s game against Centerburg, the Cubs seemed to have pushed the Trojans to the tipping point.
Lucas had already scored twice in the second half and was on the verge of a third score, positioned at the Centerburg 1-yard line.
The casual fan might have expected senior tailback Jeb Grover to get the carry on the next down. After all, Grover had accounted for all four of Lucas’ touchdowns to that point and had been nearly unstoppable in the third quarter, rushing for 131 yards on just three carries.
But there was only one player who could have had his number called on this play, and he hadn't touched the field yet over the team's first two games.
“Sam!” bellowed Lucas head coach Scott Spitler to the bench. Senior running back Sam Krupa limped into the huddle during a Spitler timeout, where the head coach drew up one final play.
That’s all that was left. One final play.
Krupa, who was set to be a key contributor to the Lucas offense this season, tore his ACL in the team’s final scrimmage three weeks ago. He is set to have surgery next Thursday, and when he asked his surgeon if he could get on the field one last time before then, his surgeon told him he could play one more down.
Spitler told him earlier in the week that if he had the opportunity, he’d get him in on Friday night. Sure enough, he had the opportunity to score.
The Lucas stands fell silent as Krupa hobbled onto the field, left knee wrapped in a black brace, and lined up behind quarterback Logan Niswander for a first-and-goal situation.
Niswander took the snap and handed it off to Krupa, who burst towards the goal line, churning his legs – he said he felt a pop after a few steps but kept going. Eventually, all 10 of Krupa’s teammates surrounded him, pushing him towards the end zone.
After a few seconds of gridlock, the bulge began to move. Krupa and his teammates fell through and the ball crossed the plane. Spitler broke the suspenseful silence.
The home sideline at Bob Wine Field erupted, fireworks went off behind the stadium and Krupa limped off the field in pain. Teammates and coaches embraced him as he made his way to the training bench.
Any chance Centerburg had of initiating a comeback was likely gone now. Lucas simply couldn’t lose this game.
The Cubs went on to win 42-14 behind 250 rushing yards from Grover. Lucas improved to 2-0 while Centerburg dropped to 1-1.
Before Krupa’s momentous carry, the game’s initial turning point came late in the first half.
Centerburg kept things close, as the score was tied at 7-7 with two minutes left in the half. After a muffed Trojan punt set the Lucas offense up at the Centerburg 46-yard line, Grover and the Cubs moved methodically towards the end zone.
Lucas had no timeouts left as Grover snuck in from the 2-yard line with just four seconds left until intermission, putting the Cubs up by a score heading into the locker room. Lucas would get the ball to start the second half and promptly score on the second play from scrimmage, a 70-yard Grover run where the senior went untouched to the house.
Within three plays, Centerburg was down by two scores.
After a first half in which the Trojans played near-perfect football, head coach Andy Colella said that sequence felt like a dagger.
“I think the score at the end of the half there, that was kind of the turning point in my opinion,” Colella said after the game. “They score seven there and they come right back out (after) halftime, they get the ball and they go right back down the field. So that’s a 14-point swing, you know.
"If we could’ve stopped them there at halftime, I think that could have changed a little bit.”
After his 70-yard touchdown run, Grover broke off a 58-yard score on the next possession, making it 27-7 after a failed extra point attempt.
Centerburg sophomore Donnell Marshall answered with a 44-yard carry on the Trojans’ next offensive possession, which set up senior running back Michael Kuhn for a 1-yard score. The Trojans trailed 27-14 with less than eight minutes left in the third quarter.
But the Cubs responded again, as Krupa scored and Grover bulldozed into the end zone for the two-point conversion, putting Lucas up 35-14. Senior Kaiden Thomas put the icing on the cake late in the fourth quarter with a 42-yard touchdown run up the left side.
After a sluggish first half from Lucas, when the Cubs had a rare red-zone turnover and six penalties, Spitler believed his team came out with a different mentality in the second half.
“We just weren’t real crisp in the first half, and that’s why we were in the situation we were in at halftime. We went the wrong way on one of our counter plays and that caused a turnover that they recovered. And then we had a missed assignment defensively and gave up the pass play on third-and-long for their touchdown,” Spitler said.
“So the talk at halftime was, we’ve got to stop the self-inflicted wounds that we were creating in the first half. We were doing good things. I mean, we were marching the ball down the field, eating up clock and yardage. And so we just needed to quit shooting ourselves in the foot. And they came out in the second half and realized that and they just kicked it into another gear and went back to playing our brand of football.”
Lucas rushed for 409 yards on Friday night (and passed for 23 yards), while giving up 203 Trojan rushing yards.
Most of Centerburg’s offense came from sophomore quarterback John Sheasby, who rushed for 119 yards and completed 9-of-15 passes for 71 yards, throwing one touchdown and one interception. Sheasby found holes in the Lucas defense in the first half, breaking off a 37-yard rush at one point as he led the Trojans comfortably into Cub territory multiple times.
The Lucas defense zeroed in on Sheasby in the second half, however, allowing just 38 rushing yards from the quarterback and intercepting an end zone pass at the goal line late in the third quarter.
“Basically, (we got) back to being disciplined. You know, not over-pursuing and those type of things, staying home on the backside,” Spitler explained. “We just contained him – he still was making some plays. He’s a great athlete. We just did a nice job of controlling – instead of getting 10, 12, 13 yards or longer, we were giving up two-yard runs with him. And that was the difference.”
Colella pointed to two missed opportunities his team had in the red zone, which proved costly against a powerhouse like Lucas.
“You can’t do that against a good football team, a traditional playoff football team and a program like this,” Colella said. “It’s a learning experience for our kids. I thought they played really, really hard. They never quit, they kept coming back.
"Offense was able to move the ball. But just those little mistakes – penalties and turnovers and those kind of things – we had the ball in the red zone twice without scoring. So you know it’s early on in the season, we’ve still got a long way to go. And we’re getting better and there’s a lot of good things ahead, and I’m excited about it.”
Lucas travels to Northmor next week to face one of the three teams it lost to last season. Centerburg will host Northridge in its home opener.
Standing near the 50-yard line long after the final horn had sounded on Friday night, Krupa still couldn’t quite put things into words.
For most, the win might have seemed rather routine, especially for a school like Lucas; the Cubs have made four straight playoff appearances while Centerburg won just two games last season. By all accounts, this was the expected outcome. Just another week in what could very well be a long season for the Cubs, one that stretches into November.
But for Krupa, this was it. It was his last shot at playing football competitively, a sport which he began playing in sixth grade. It was his last time wearing the Lucas orange and black, his last time strapping on the pads and lacing up the cleats.
He was nearly speechless.
“It really tears me down because this is the last time I’ll ever get to put this uniform back on. I don’t know, it’s just really sad, but you’ve gotta stay positive. And with all them, they keep me positive. It’s been great,” Krupa said of his teammates.
“Football is just… it’s family to me. We’re just all together, we’re one big family. It’s amazing. I just love them I guess.”