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Illinois State Wins Dramatic Great MW Finals Weekend

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Illinois State Wins Dramatic Great MW Finals Weekend

Illinois State won two very tight games this weekend in a wild finish to take the Great Midwest Conference.

The semifinal-final weekend produced plenty of drama throughout.

Played in snow, which slowly melted and converted the fields to mud, the games were close all the way through.

Loyola of Chicago pushed Wisconsin-Whitewater in a bit of a slugfest on Saturday, holding the Warhawks to just one unconverted try in the first half. Whitewater started to pull away after that, scoring twice early in the second half to lead 17-0, both on long breakaways. Loyola clawed back, but turnovers killed their momentum and Whitewater won the semifinal 27-10.

Marquette and Illinois State went head-to-head in a repeat of a playoff matchup between the two teams last year.  That time, Marquette won, and seven minutes into the game it looked like the same story as the Milwaukee school scored to take a 5-0 lead. Illinois State answered, only to see Marquette score again at lead 12-7 at halftime.

It was that sort of game, and Illinois State scored to retake the lead, and then scored again to make it 19-12. The game ended with ISU down a player due to a yellow card and defending desperately as Marquette tried to get the tying try. But the ISU defense held, and the game ended Illinois State 19, Marquette 12.


The 3rd-4th game in the Great Midwest is always a big game because this conference routinely (and deservedly) gets three seeds to nationals. Loyola and Marquette, rival Catholic universities, as well, went at it like the game did indeed mean a lot.

Loyola ran out to a 22-0 lead only to see Marquette inch its way back. Marquette charged down a kick to score and make it 22-12. Loyola added a penalty, but Marquette punished a dangerous tackle and yellow card to score another try and make it 25-17. With time almost up Marquette's forwards crashed through and scored again. Conversion good, but that penalty kick from Loyola was key.

there was time for one more attack, but the Loyola defense held and forced Marquette into touch. Loyola 25 Marquette 24.

In the final, it was all defense as Illinois State defeated Wisconsin-Whitewater 10-5 to win the conference. (For context, Whitewater hadn't scored less than 26 in any conference game all fall).

"We actually were more concerned about the Marquette game than the final," said ISU's Tom Nevara. "Marquette had knocked us out last year so we knew they would be tough."

In the final, perhaps Illinois State played a little more relaxed. They certainly played with intensity.

"We were really pleased with our defense," said Nevara. "We had a good rush defense and we get up in their faces and stop them from getting the ball wide."

Conscious of those breakaway tries that Whitewater had scored the day before, ISU was determined to protect the edge. This seemed like it would be a difficult prospect because starting outside center Ryan Watkinson had picked up an injury the day before. So they depended, in part, on reserve Pete Tognarelli, but he performed brilliantly in shutting down the Whitewater pace.

Also huge on defense was Michael Stutzman, who was hugely active all day, while No. 8 Scott LaBine got go-forward with some key carries.

The MVP for Illinois State was scrumhalf Demond Shavers, who was dangerous on the quick-taps, but also smart enough not to tap when it wasn't on. In muddy conditions, Shavers's passing was consistent and that kept the ISU offense moving.

"He controlled the pace very well," said Nevara. "When we needed to be quick, he was quick, and when we needed to slow it down, he did that."

And it was enough. Illinois State has unseated mighty Wisconsin-Whitewater, a team that has been in the last five national finals, and could be thinking bigger things.