CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Cary-Grove wavered on whether they should go for a first down on fourth-and-1 on its own 35-yard line late as it trailed Providence 17-14 in the third quarter of the Class 6A state championship game on Saturday.
First, it looked like they might. Then, the punting unit came out. Then, there was a timeout. Finally, Cary-Grove coach Bruce Kay pulled the trigger and sent his offense back on the field.
It would be the best decision he made all day.
Alex Hembrey took a pitch from quarterback Tyler Krebs on the left side of the field, ran along the left sideline, stayed just inbounds, found the open field, ran for a while, stopped, avoided a Providence tackler and then sprinted the rest of the way for the score.
From there, it was a different game.
Hembrey would score two more touchdowns, and Cary-Grove's defense would force three turnovers on the way to a 34-17 Trojans' win at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. It was the school's first state football championship.
"The thought process was we thought we could get one [yard]," Kay said. "We got a lot more. [Hembrey] made a play. When you're in a championship game, you need players to make plays."
"I think they thought we were coming up the middle with it, so we went outside," Hembrey said. "I just tried to get the first down, and I realized there was no one there. We got the first down, and the touchdown was even better. We didn't have much momentum at that point. We really needed something to spark us. That play really got us going. From that point on, we got rolling."
Cary-Grove's defense emerged on the next three drives.
After Hembrey's touchdown, Providence moved the ball down the field and put themselves in position to retake the lead. On third-and-9 from Cary-Grove's 19, Celtics quarterback Joey Houlihan floated a pass into the end zone. Defensive back Chad McCarron ran in front of Houlihan's target and intercepted the ball. On Providence's first play of their next possession, Cary-Grove's Trent Sorensen intercepted Houlihan. Linebacker Kyle Leibforth closed out the intercept parade for Cary-Grove on the next drive.
"They needed to force turnovers, and they did," Hembrey said. "They played outstanding. We really stepped it up on both sides of the ball."
Hembrey added touchdowns run of seven and 45 yards to his memorable day. He finished with 187 yards and three touchdowns on 18 carries.
"I don't really care what my stats are, to be honest," Hembrey said. "The fact that we won the state championship, I'm happy. I could have gone 16 carries for no yards if we got that state championship. I've dreamed about this since the '04 team came here and lost. The fact that it really happened is amazing. Words can't describe it."
Providence running back Tim Hanrahan ran for 83 yards and a touchdown.
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.