STERLING, Ill. — Despite falling to top-ranked Sterling Newman in the first meeting earlier this season, Orion felt it showed signs in the second half of being capable to win if the two teams met again.
In the rematch, however, the second half belonged to the Comets.
Sterling Newman outscored Orion by 20 points in the final two quarters to pull away to a 40-14 win in a Class 2A quarterfinal matchup Saturday at Roscoe Eades Stadium.
The Comets face No. 2 Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley next week in the semifinals.
"Our kids just kicked it up a notch," Newman coach Mike Papoccia said. "We were kind of upset they felt the first time around they outplayed us in the second half so we wanted to make sure we left no doubt this second half, and I thought we took it to them pretty well.
"They're a great team, I'm surprised we were able to score that many on them, but we'll take it."
Orion trailed Newman only 13-7 at halftime, but the Comets (12-0) flexed their muscle right away in the third quarter, taking their first drive 63 yards, capped by a 1-yard sneak by quarterback Landen Vesley to go up 19-7. Orion (9-3) countered with a long drive, but quarterback Dawson Schulenberg was intercepted in the end zone by Alec Faley, one of two interceptions on the day by the Newman junior.
Newman upped its lead to 25-7 before Schulenberg hit Seth West with a 52-yard touchdown pass to cut the lead to 25-14. However, Newman scored the final 15 points of the game, outgaining Orion 320-161 in the second half.
The Comets are back in the state semifinals for the first time since 2013 when they ended up winning their fifth state title. Two of the last three seasons ended in the quarterfinals so to get back over the hump is still special for one of the most storied programs in the state.
"Last year's team, all the seniors last year wanted us to win it for them, and it felt great coming back here and actually getting the 'W' this year," senior running back Cade Gorzny said. "We just need to focus this next week and can't take whoever we play lightly."
Gorzny led the Comets with 201 rushing yards and three touchdowns while Luke Olson had 152 yards and two touchdowns, including a 92-yard scamper in the fourth quarter to cap the scoring. The Chargers held running back Easton Bianchi — who torched them for 197 yards in the first meeting, a 35-21 Newman win — to just 54 yards.
"You really have to pick your poison there," Orion head coach Chip Filler said. "That was the big thing. Everybody kept texting me telling me we needed to shut Bianchi down. We did, I guess, and somebody else got us. That program is really good. Mike does a super job, and they're a class act.
"They just kind of flexed our muscle and wore us out."
Orion came out strong to start the game, taking its opening drive 64 yards on 13 plays, 12 of which were runs and capped by a touchdown run by Sam West to take a 7-0 lead. The Chargers forced the Comets into a three-and-out on their first drive and looked strong again, driving 26 yards on their first five plays.
But the Newman defense adjusted, forcing the Chargers to punt and only allowing 11 yards to the Chargers the rest of the half.
"They started playing some different techniques up front, and I just think they started getting up and saying, 'Hey, we're not going to let you do that. If we can stop your running game, then we know you become one-dimensional,'" Filler said.
Schulenberg finished with 180 passing yards while Seth West led the Chargers on the ground with 51 yards.
Orion has plenty of reason to be optimistic for next season. The Chargers graduate just five seniors and return several key pieces including Seth West, Schulenberg and Iowa commit Logan Lee.
"It will definitely bring us back harder next year," Seth West said. "But those five seniors were key parts of our offense and defense, and we'll miss them next year."