By JOSH RIZZO
Herald-Whig Sports Writer
BELLEVILLE, Ill. -- With the Central-Southeastern rush in pursuit, Belleville Althoff punter Donovan Gagen needed to think and act quickly.
It was just quick enough.
After a snap sailed over Gagen's head and into the Crusaders' end zone during the second quarter of Saturday's Class 2A state semifinal, he managed to corral the loose ball and get a punt away to stave off trouble.
Althoff was good at that. The Crusaders fumbled five times in the first half and six times overall, but they lost only one in a 28-7 victory at Lindenwood-Belleville Stadium that ended the best season in C-SE history.
The Panthers finished 12-1 after making their first state semifinal appearance ever.
"It'll take a little bit for it all to soak in," C-SE coach Brad Dixon said. "Right now, I'm sad that I don't get to coach these seniors another day. They set the bar for everybody. There will be a lot of big shoes to fill, but there were a lot of big shoes to fill last year.
"They'll look back at it in a week or in a couple days or so and be really proud of it."
It was difficult, in the moment, for the Panthers to overlook the what-could-have-beens.
On the play before Gagen's miraculous punt, the Crusaders dove on a fumble when Panthers senior defensive lineman Drew Miller strip-sacked Althoff quarterback Eric Mertens.
"I tried to do whatever I could just to get the ball," Miller said. "We couldn't end up with it. We all played with all our hearts, and I'm proud of everybody."
Dixon said the Panthers couldn't catch a break in the first half.
"I couldn't be more proud of this team," Dixon said. "We gave them our best shot. If a couple things go our way, it's a different ball game. We kept battling. Some days, the balls go your way. Some days, they don't."
A dazzling first quarter from Mertens allowed the Crusaders to take a 14-0 lead. Mertens, who finished with 205 yards passing and two touchdowns, completed nine of his first 11 passes.
Two long passes set up a 2-yard touchdown run by Dennis Jackson with 5:40 remaining in the first quarter. C-SE quarterback Seth Leezer was intercepted two plays later, and Althoff moved the ball 63 yards in just five plays to set up a 14-yard TD pass from Mertens to Garland Henley.
Miller said the Panthers were more determined after the Crusaders' hot start.
"We knew what we had to do. We had to step it up if we wanted to go to the state championship," Miller said.
Defensive back Doug Weese said quick passes hurt C-SE early..
"We knew they were going to go to the screen because they were throwing screens all over us (early)," Weese said. "We kind of broke down on that, and the defensive line did a great job of that. It was a matter of playing better all around."
Weese turned the momentum by partially blocking a Gagen punt later in the second. The Panthers got the ball at the Crusaders' 28-yard line. Seven runs, highlighted by an 11-yard scamper by Bobby Keltz, moved the ball to the 4-yard line. Leezer then fired a pass through two defenders to Weese in the back of the end zone to cut the lead to 14-7 with 3:03 left before halftime.
Three plays into the second half, Leezer passed to Weese for a 56-yard gain to the Crusaders' 14, but the Panthers did nothing with it, which became the story of the second half
Leezer passed for 93 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions, while the Panthers struggled to find holes in a big Althoff defensive line. C-SE was limited to 92 yards rushing.
Althoff extended its lead to 21-7 when Mertens found Luke Frazier for a 2-yard touchdown pass on fourth and goal with 6:46 remaining in the game. After Harris intercepted his second pass of the game, Nick Hawthorne scored on a 14-yard run with 1:19 remaining to close the scoring.
It closed the chapter on a remarkable season, too.