Any northwesterly breeze affecting the Southside of Indianapolis on Friday night might not have been wind at all.
After all, hundreds of Roncalli football fans were breathing a collective sigh of relief.
Patrick Sandler’s 21-yard field goal from the left hash mark as time expired lifted Class 4A’s top-ranked squad to a pulsating 34-33 victory at Lebanon in a Sectional 21 semifinal.
Now 11-0 on the season, the Rebels advance to play at Greenwood (8-3) in next week’s sectional title game.
The best Lebanon ballclub in many years pushed Roncalli to its limit and very nearly straight into the off-season much earlier than those in the Rebels program anticipated.
Sandler, a Greenwood resident, finished the evening with a pair of field goals and was a perfect 4-for-4 on conversion attempts.
“Patrick is pretty dependable. He’s been clutch for us the last couple of years,” Roncalli coach Bruce Scifres said. “I was praying like crazy, and they hung in there and got it done.”
The Rebels came in having won six of their first 10 contests this season by eight or fewer points.
Led by senior southpaw quarterback Derek O’Connor (17 of 28 passing for 206 yards) and tailback Kenny Gillum (121 yards rushing), Roncalli started what would be the game-winning drive at its own 47 with 1:42 on the clock.
Using both the pass and his ability to bust out of the pocket for yardage, O’Connor’s final run advanced the football to the Tigers 4-yard line.
O’Connor’s unflappable persona proved huge down the stretch.
“He’s a warrior. He fights every play for every yard he can get. Derek has a ton of poise and has just led us all season long and done an unbelievable job of engineering that offense,” Scifres said.
“He runs hard and picks up tough yardage when he needs to, and stands in the pocket with poise when he needs to, also. We’ve had a handful of games like this. It’s a tribute to our kids, the character they have and the desire and will to win that they have.”
Lebanon (8-3), which took the field averaging 45.7 points a game and actually scored a total of 102 points in its two regular-season losses — to Zionsville and Tri-West — led 33-24 on a 46-yard TD scamper by junior tailback Jaylen Washington.
The Rebels responded with a 4-yard touchdown pass from O’Connor to Gillum at the 2:21 mark.
Roncalli’s defense then forced a Lebanon punt, setting up the game-deciding drive and kick.
Gillum accumulated 104 of his rushing yards during the first two quarters as the Rebels and Tigers were knotted at 21-all at halftime.
Lebanon took advantage of a Roncalli miscue to post the game’s first points.
After forcing the hosts to punt, Evan Stambaugh’s rugby style punt glanced off a Rebels player and was alertly recovered by the Tigers at the Roncalli 44.
Four plays later, Stambaugh delivered a textbook 33-yard timing toss to junior receiver Ryan Poole for a 7-0 advantage.
Roncalli marched 67 yards on 10 plays on the ensuing possession to tie the score on O’Connor’s 7-yard scoring pass to a wide-open Gillum.
A 1-yard sneak by Stambaugh put Lebanon back on top; again the Rebels responded, Gillum blasting 27 yards untouched up the middle for the touchdown.
Roncalli’s lone lead of the half came when Gillum ran it in from 4 yards out with 5:48 remaining in the second stanza. Unfazed, the Tigers took the football 75 yards in eight plays to force the third tie of the half.