SAVANNA, Ill. — West Carroll football earned plenty of respect Saturday afternoon.
Despite falling 24-6 to Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley, the Thunder made the second-ranked Falcons earn every bit of their Class 2A second-round victory.
"Once you get past the first round of the playoffs you know every team is tough," Falcons running back Mitch McNutt said. "That was by far the best team we've played, very physical, showed a lot of heart and stayed in it for four quarters."
The Thunder have come a long way since going 1-8 four years ago. The hard work and dedication ended with disappointment, tears and a 7-4 record, but there's plenty of pride for the 14 seniors who stuck with the program and guided it to two playoff appearances and its first home playoff game in a decade.
"We've totally flipped the program upside down," senior running back Kaleb Plattenberger said. "It was fun. ... We got the win record this year and hopefully every class beats that win record, keeps pushing on and keeps it rolling."
The Falcons (11-0) finally flexed their muscles in the fourth quarter, scoring 15 points to make the score appear more lopsided than it was as, through the first three quarters, the Thunder kept the deficit to 9-6.
The Falcons rolled off a 13-play, 54-yard drive that was capped by McNutt's first touchdown run with six minutes, 11 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Twice on that drive the Falcons converted on fourth down.
"I thought that was the punch we didn't get back up from right away and that's a credit to them," West Carroll head coach Matt Leitzen said. "That's a team that hasn't played in a lot of close games, and we wondered how they'd respond to some of that."
Austin Spiller intercepted West Carroll quarterback Kody Plattenberger on the first play of the Thunder's next drive and McNutt scored five plays later to essentially end the game. McNutt finished with 142 yards on 26 carries.
Still, the Thunder held the Falcons to 23 points below their season average and kept the margin of victory to 18 points, the lowest of the season for Gibson City, who was beating its opponents by an average of 41 points per game.
"There's a lot to look back on and be proud of this season," Letizen said. "The reality is only eight teams get to end the season the way they want to. That's just the way it is and that's why I love this sport. You've got to work so hard just to give yourself an opportunity to play in something like this and these kids know what kind of work it takes."
Gibson City took a 7-0 lead on a 44-yard touchdown pass from Nathan Garard to Ryland Holt with 3:18 left in the first quarter.
That lead was upped to 9-0 after an intentional grounding call in the end zone gave the Falcons a safety.
The Thunder struggled offensively, with just 118 total yards, 68 coming on the lone scoring drive of the day, which came on the team's first drive of the second half. Kaleb Plattenberger scored a 1-yard touchdown run to cut the lead to 9-6 after brother Kody found Jacob Dunk with a 44-yard pass completion.
"We for sure struggled with that defense," Kody said. "They were pretty aggressive on that side of the ball and it hurt us not making many plays on the offensive side. It was a little bit of everything. We thought we were ready and it turns out we weren't as ready as we thought."
Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley 24, West Carroll 6
GCMS -- Ryland Holt 43 pass from Nathan Garard (Ben Freehill kick), 3:18
GCMS -- Safety, 2:56
WC -- Kaleb Plattenberger 1 run (pass failed), 8:26
GCMS -- Mitch McNutt 2 run (Freehill kick), 6:11
GCMS -- McNutt 5 run (Austin Spiller from Garard), 3:58
GCMS -- Mitch McNutt 26-142, Jarad Trantina 18-64, Lance Livingston 2-14, Payton Kean 1-2, Nathan Garard 5-(-8)
West Carroll -- Kaleb Hartman 9-34, Kaleb Plattenberger 8-14, Kody Plattenberger 5-9, Chance Williams 2-8
GCMS -- Garard 3-11-2, 66
West Carroll -- Ko. Plattenberger 3-13-3, 53
GCMS -- Ryland Holt 1-43, Bryce Barnes 2-23
West Carroll -- Jacob Dunk 1-44, Michael Popkin 1-8, Ka. Plattenberger 1-1