HEWITT – Shiner St. Paul wrapped up its second consecutive TAPPS Division IV final with a thrilling 20-16 victory over Halletsville Sacred Heart on Saturday night.

With the win – the team’s second this season over its district rival – the Cardinals are champions for the fourth time in five years.

“What a great game,” said Shiner St. Paul coach Jake Wachsmuth. “We knew it would be. To beat a team twice is very difficult. That’s a great team over there, and it was a battle. We feel very blessed.”

Trailing 16-14 late in the fourth quarter, St. Paul (10-3) went on a 77-yard, 10-play drive to take the lead with 1:08 left. That drive ended like the Cardinals’ other two touchdown drives of the night – with sophomore running back Zak Johnson finding the end zone.

However, the two-point try was no good, and St. Paul led 20-16 as Sacred Heart (7-6) attempted a last-ditch comeback. The Indians converted a dramatic fourth-and-10 on a 49-yard pass from Austin Kutac to William Harper, but with 20 seconds left, St. Paul defensive back Austin Davis intercepted Kutac to seal the championship.

Like his counterpart on the other sideline, Hallettsville Sacred Heart head coach Manny Freeland also expressed much pride in the fight his team showed.

“It’s tough,” Freeland said,” “But at the same time, we never quit. We kept battling back, and we almost pulled off the Cinderella story.”

The game definitely had all the trappings of a state championship between two good teams. There were five lead changes and several game-changing plays throughout the contest.

Aided by a good opening kickoff return, Sacred Heart opened the game with an impressive 11-play, 43-yard drive. The Indians converted two fourth-down plays on the initial march, including a fourth-and-goal. Lane Leopold scored on a 1-yard quarterback keeper, and the Indians, who lost the first game between the two schools 21-14, registered an early statement.

Sacred Heart actually got the ball right back after that score, recovering a St. Paul fumble on the kickoff. They were unable to convert the turnover to points and take a two-score lead, though, as a 39-yard field goal try was no good.

Finally getting a change to run their offense, the Cardinals ripped off runs of 37 and 25 yards on their first two plays. Their first drive ended with Johnson’s first score of the night, from 2 yards out.

The see-saw was just getting warmed up, though, as Sacred Heart kicker Joshua Steffek booted a 23-yard field goal on the next possession to put the Indians back in front 10-7.

The score would remain 10-7 until the fourth quarter. St. Paul held the ball to open the second half for more than 10 minutes, but the 17-play drive came up empty when Sacred Heart held on fourth down on their own 4-yard line. However, following an unsuccessful Indian fake punt, the Cardinals only needed three plays to retake the lead 14-10 with 10:17 left in the game.

That lead last exactly three minutes,. With 7:16 remaining, Kutac found Leopold for a 41-yard touchdown. Under heavy pressure, the sophomore quarterback found the receiver in the flat, and he broke three tackles and raced up the sideline to once again put his team in front. The PAT kick was blocked, leading to the 16-14 score. That was when St. Paul went on the game- and championship-winning final drive.

After the game, following a Gatorade-cooler drenching as well as the trophy and medal presentation, Wauchsmith credited his entire team with being the difference in the game.

“It was good defense when we needed it; it was our line up front, and it was Zak and Kai (Giese),” he said. “It was everybody.”

Giese led the Indians with 133 yards on 17 carries, while Johnson added 91 yards to go with his three touchdowns.

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