Three yards away. Again.
When Deante Harley-Hampton fumbled in the final minute of last year's 8A state title game, the champion Stevenson Patriots fell on the ball at the 3-yard-line. A touchdown would have given the Vikings a victory in the most unlikely of comebacks, having trailed by 15 points with less than 6 minutes remaining.
The loss was a painful reminder all offseason of just how narrow the gap between winning and losing can be. And while the Vikings said all the right things in the lead-up to the 2015 season, using that loss and those yards as motivation for what was expected to be a championship season, nearly a year later the football again rested on that infamous 3-yard-line, nine feet away from glory.
This time it came in the 8A quarterfinals, a matchup between Loyola and Homewood-Flossmoor, the state's most talented teams expected to meet in the title game. The way the brackets shook out after the Vikings suffered a loss in the regular season's final week pitted the two teams against each other two weeks prior to DeKalb, in what many touted as the game of the year and the most highly anticipated quarterfinal game in recent memory.
Homewood-Flossmoor entered the contest averaging better than 43 points per game. The Ramblers' top-ranked defense had allowed 73 points all year, including five shutouts. Something had to give as the state's most lethal offense squared off against the state's most unforgiving defense. And it happened on the first play of the final quarter.
The Vikings, leading 21-19, had manufactured another successful drive deep into Ramblers territory. To that point, the 12-play drive included a key third-down run by Devonte Harley-Hampton, a sparkling 24-yard run by Deante Harley-Hampton - who had scored three times in the game - and an incredible 51-yard catch-and-run by Kendric Pryor with the Vikings facing a 2nd and 41 after a pair of penalties.
On first and goal from the 8, Devonte Harley-Hampton rushed for two yards. A Bryce Gray incompletion set up third and goal from the 6, with Gray keeping an option down to the 3-yard-line as time expired in the third quarter.
That set up a 4th and goal from the 3. Earlier in the week the Vikings had game planned to feature more of a passing attack than usual, and with a touchdown meaning a two-possession lead with Loyola going into the wind head coach Craig Buzea put the ball in the team's most reliable of hands, Gray.
The senior signal caller rolled right and saw Deante Harley-Hampton alone in the back of the end zone. He lofted a pass just high enough for the leaping 5-foot-6 Deante Harley-Hampton to get his hands on. But as the running back began his descent into the end zone, Loyola defensive back Ian Swenson pushed Harley-Hampton just enough for the running back's right foot to come down out of bounds by mere centimeters, if that.
The result was a turnover on downs. And while that missed opportunity certainly didn't end the game - the Vikings held the lead and Loyola was heading into the wind - it shifted momentum entirely. The Ramblers proceeded to go 97 yards in 19 plays, both managing the clock and keeping the HF offense on the sideline. A 10-yard Emmett Clifford touchdown run gave the Ramblers a 27-21 lead with less than 5 minutes remaining, and the Vikings went four-and-out on their next possession to all but wrap up the game.
A multitude of factors played a part in the Vikings' loss, but again those three ugly yards were left on the field.
It was an unfortunate microcosm of the senior class which will graduate more than half its starters from a team that was widely expected to compete for a state title. For all the group accomplished, nearly winning it all in 2014 and crushing school records a year later, that elusive state title was a goal the team never reached.
And yet, the bigger picture reigned supreme.
Gray said at the beginning of the year that his hope was the 2015 class would be remembered forever. What he assumed was that a state title needed to be brought home to the halls of Homewood-Flossmoor High School in order for that to be achieved. And for likely the first time in his career, Gray would be wrong.
Just eight of the 256 teams that qualify for the IHSA playoffs bring home a title. Five straight wins against premier competition is a feat in and of itself, and certainly with the way the 8A bracket shook out the Vikings had nothing to hand their collective heads on over losing to the Ramblers, which defeated Palatine on Saturday to advance to DeKalb.
It's true, the 2015 Homewood-Flossmoor Vikings won't be remembered as the team that went wire-to-wire as the top team in Illinois. They won't be remembered for winning a state championship. They weren't the team of destiny they had been pegged as in August.
But for this tight knit group, the collection of seniors who joined the varsity team three years ago, they'll be remembered in a larger realm than any trophy could have described them.
"We came in wanting to be the best ever to walk through the halls. I think we proved that we’re up there, definitely. We didn’t get the main goal but we did some great thigns here, I’m proud of us," Gray said. "We won conference here for the first time, a lot more good than bad this year. Sorry. I love those guys and I’m going to miss them. I’m going to miss walking on the field with them."
Gray defined what it meant to be a Viking. The Harley-Hampton twins combined for more than 3,000 total yards and 49 touchdowns. Kendric Pryor, who committed to Wisconsin early in the year, totaled 1,152 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaging 26.2 yards per reception. Junior Ty RIchie went from unknown to underrated, catching 20 balls, five of which for touchdowns. The offensive line, led by senior Desmond Bland, made the Vikings' "machine" work.
The defense surely wishes it could have that 97-yard drive back. But senior Percy Walters and Tyler Newkirk led a group that constantly was forced to take the field after the Vikings' offense exploded for three- and four-play drives. It's no easy feat being the follow-up act after the state's most dynamic offense put on their own show. And Zac Wells' group more than played their part. As it was with the entire group, they didn't complete their ultimate goal. But they, too, will be remembered for what they did in their time wearing the red and white and will grow from it.
"We had a heck of a team. We just fell short. You move on in life from this," Newkirk said. "You take this and you carry this. Tough one to take on the chin, but we move on and grow as men."
The Homewood-Flossmoor football program is in phenomenal hands under Craig Buzea. Spend even one day around them and you realize they're about something more than nine weeks of wins and losses. Buzea's goal every season is to be ranked nationally and to win a state championship. One day he'll get there, so long as he keeps the core values he's built this program on intact. It didn't happen with the 2015 team, as many expected, but that special group of players will leave their own mark. And that mark will last long after they leave Flossmoor.
"A lot of these guys came up as sophomores, pretty immature sophomores. And to see them walk out as young men like they are," Buzea said with a smile, "and knowing that what they’re going to accomplish in years to come, is pretty special to watch."