CHAMPAIGN – Lincoln-Way West won the coin toss and deferred.
Champaign Central elected to receive, Lincoln-Way West got the benefit of the powerful wind and Kevin Kiemeck drove the kickoff into the end zone.
It wasn't quite that easy, but almost. West, playing in a few inches of snow on a mushy natural-grass surface at Champaign Centennial, got the big early lead and breezed past Champaign Central, 42-14, Saturday afternoon in the Class 5A state football semifinals.
The Warriors' reward is a date with Nazareth, which won the 6A title a year ago, in the 5A championship game at 10 a.m. next Saturday at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. Just as Saturday was West's first semifinal ever, the Nazareth clash will be its first title game.
Running behind an offensive line of Nate Henry, Brett Bergman, Jason Lucinski, Bryan Brokop and Justin Witt from left tackle to right tackle, West tailback Gabe Montalvo was at his best in the first half, which ended with West on top, 35-0.
Montalvo gained 230 of his 242 yards and scored all five of his touchdowns in the opening half – on runs of 25, 24, 10, 33 and 67 yards. He carried 19 times in the first half and finished the game with 242 yards on 24 carries. He goes to state with 2,295 rushing yards and 38 touchdowns on the resume.
"The thing about Gabe is he cares nothing about himself, it's all about the team," Brokop said. "That's the kind of atmosphere we have on this team. That's why we think we can go win state."
Brokop said the conditions made no difference to the Warriors (11-2).
"Our game is power football, anyway," he said. "Gabe took advantage of the elements."
For his part, Montalvo said running in the snow was his idea of a fun afternoon.
"We're a running team and that's what you do on a day like this," Montalvo said. "I've got the best linemen and wide receivers and tight ends in the state to block for me. It's really nice."
Montalvo carried every Warriors' offensive play but three in the first half. Two of those were fumbled snaps and the other was an incompletion.
"It's what we do, give the ball to Gabe," West coach Dave Ernst said. "Our offense and defense is built for something like this."
Montalvo, of course, did not supply all the fireworks in the first half. West got the jump on the field position game early, and Champaign Central (11-2) did its part to help. The Maroons, going into the stiff wind, did not punt in the first quarter.
Instead, they were turned away on fourth-and-10 and fourth-and-14 situations, and Warriors sophomore linebacker Ryan Robbins intercepted a pass.
"We had to win the battle with the field-position game on a day like this, and we did," Ernst said.
Montalvo made one mistake.in the first half. Battling, as he always does, for every last yard, he fumbled at the Champaign Central 8-yard line. The ball rolled to the 4, and the Maroons recovered.
"When I got off the field, Coach Ernst told me that if going to try to get that extra yardage to keep both hands on the ball," Montalvo said.
That boo-boo was quickly eradicated, however. Two plays later, safety Josh Bohne tackled Champaign's Josh Parker in the end zone for a safety, making it 16-0 late in the first quarter.
As Montalvo continued piling up yardage and the Warriors' offense continued carrying out its blocks, frustration grew on the opposite sideline. At the end of 10-yard Montalvo run, the Maroons' Tim Maiden got Witt on the ground and began delivering punch after punch even though Witt still was wearing his helmet. He was ejected.
"I blocked him 10 yards down the field and put him in the dirt, and he didn't like it," Witt said.
The highlight in the second half came when West went up 42-0 to click on the running clock. That came when fullback/tight end Tom LaBerry slipped into the flat, took a short pass from quarterback Connor Lowman, used a good block and raced to the end zone to complete a 77-yard scoring play with 4:25 left in the third quarter.
LaBerry's mother, Kim LaBerry, passed away Nov. 11, days before the Warriors' quarterfinal game against Peoria.
"He's been playing so well at fullback, kicking out on his blocks," Ernst said of LaBerry. "I couldn't be happier for him and his family that he got that touchdown."
"Everyone was proud of him, and I know his mom was, too," Witt said.
Meanwhile, Champaign had managed 71 yards of offense to that point against the Warriors' dominant defense. The Maroons scored twice and picked up 117 more yards after that, all against the West reserves.
The outcome had long since been decided.