Early in the season, Rice quarterback Tommy Fitzgerald went down with an injury, causing many to wonder whether the Green Knights would be able to defend their Division II high school football crown.
Turns out, the injury may have been a blessing in disguise.
Chris Jansen stepped in for the injured senior and led the team to a No. 2 seed in the D-II playoffs. The junior capped off his run as super-sub by rushing for two touchdowns and tossing a third to lead Rice to a 27-21 win over top-seeded Lyndon, helping the Green Knights capture their second straight D-II state title.
“It’s been the same every single game this year,” said Rice head coach Neil Brodeur. “We didn’t even know that he was going to be playing quarterback early this year, then when Tommy (Fitzgerald) went down we had to figure out what we wanted to run with the kids we had and he stepped up and just kept getting better and better every game. I just can’t say enough about him.”
Jansen got things started for Rice in the first half, scampering 12 yards into the end zone for a touchdown and then hitting Fitzgerald, who returned for the team’s semifinal win last week, on the two-point conversion to give the Green Knights an 8-7 lead.
Jansen then made some noise on defense, grabbing a fumble — one of six Lyndon turnovers in the game — and returning it to the Vikings’ 6-yard line. Anthony Phillip then took the ball and barrelled into the end zone for a 14-7 lead.
“We had four turnovers in the first half and six on the game, quite honestly we should have been down by a significantly larger margin but we were able to hang close,” said Lyndon head coach Dan Nolan. “We had some issues with our ball security and did some things that are uncharacteristic and Rice played hard, those two things credited those turnovers and its regrettable, but it is what it is.
Jansen and Fitzgerald hooked up to extend the Rice lead, once again capitalizing on another Lyndon turnover.
After the Vikings fumbled the ball and Rice recovered, Hansen hit Fitzgerald with a 75-yard touchdown pass, giving the Green Knights a 20-7 lead with three minutes remaining in the first half.
“Tommy (Fitzgerald) is one of the best players in the state, if you give him the ball he is going to do great things with it.” Jansen said. “I knew that if I got the ball to him he would take care of the rest.”
Jansen added his own big play in the third quarter, slipping through a couple tackles and breaking out for a 45-yard touchdown, giving the Green Knights a 27-7 lead with 4:43 remaining.
“We all knew we had a job to do and if we wanted to win, if we wanted to have the championship, we knew we had to do our job and get it done and do what needed to be done,” Jansen said. “”I knew we had a great group of guys, I knew we could do something special to win the state championship for the second year in a row is just an amazing feeling.”
Lyndon got themselves back into the game late in the third quarter. First, Kyle Cippollone out-muscled a Rice defender to reel in a 38-yard touchdown catch to close the score to 27-14.
Davis Guyer then made it 27-21 for Lyndon with 9.8 seconds to go in the third quarter. The senior fought his way for a 20-yard touchdown and closed the game to within a score with the fourth quarter remaining.
“Our kids had every reason to go home and pack it in and call it a season, but they didn’t,” Nolan said. “It’s one play at a time, when you fall behind like that you aren’t going to get a 21 point touchdown and that was our speech. We told our guys, its one play and you have to chip away. So I’m awfully proud of them for coming back.”
But the Vikings could not complete the comeback. The Rice defense buckled down and did not let the Vikings into the end zone in the fourth quarter. The Green Knights intercepted a Hail Mary attempt from Lyndon quarterback James Shufelt on the final play of the game.
“They had all the momentum in the world and we knew they weren’t going to give up,” Brodeur said. “We knew they were going to keep going, we just weathered the storm. We took some timely timeouts just to get the kids adjusted and then they just played.”
For Rice, the story was the big play ability of Jansen, who had 167 passing yards in the first quarter, and it’s strong defense.
“We thought we had a good game plan coming and we just needed the kids to execute and they did,” Brodeur said. “I’m so proud of them.”