Thomas Helton, all 6-foot-4 of him, rose above the ground as he did all game Saturday.
His teammates chanted his name as they hoisted him above the hundreds who had piled onto the field after Bishop Carroll’s 38-28 victory in the Class 5A football championship game against St. Thomas Aquinas. For the first time and in the final game of his career, he and the Golden Eagles were champions.
The winning connection was clear. It started with No. 12 and ended with No. 84.
Braden Howell was electric in his final game as quarterback at Carroll. He threw for three touchdowns and ran it in for a pair of scores. He finessed a corner route to Joseph Holthusen late in the third quarter to give the Eagles a 31-14 lead and busted through the middle of the defense for a gashing run to set up another touchdown just a quarter hour earlier.
His coach, Dusty Trail, found his quarterback postgame and hugged him. Trail said Howell was fantastic, but it was his chemistry with Helton that made a difference in Howell’s play, getting him into a comfortable rhythm.
“Those guys are seniors together, they’ve been doing that for four years,” Trail said. “So obviously they’ve got a great connection already, and it worked magic in this game.”
Helton had a field day.
The Aquinas defense played off, giving Helton soft coverage all game, and because of it, he caught 13 passes for 187 yards and scored Carroll’s first points on a lofty fade to the corner of the end zone. Helton had to reach for it, but held on for a fingertip catch.
Helton said that grab was an absolute fire-starter for the rest of the game.
“That was the perfect ball,” Helton said. “It got me pumped. Got us into the game. I was really excited, and I was ready for more.”
Trail said having a towering presence like Helton at receiver was a complete game-changer, which it was at times, but most of Helton’s production came on passes that didn’t even cross the line of scrimmage.
Howell gained confidence quickly and early, dumping off screen passes to Helton in the flat that rarely were blown up in the backfield, and that connection made a meaningful impact when the Eagles faced third and fourth downs.
“It was (automatic),” Trail said. “We didn’t know if we were gonna be able to have that connection or not coming into the game, but you saw the game. If we needed a play, that’s where we went is that connection.”
Aquinas stiffened defensively and came to life on its possessions, but Carroll always seemed to have the answers on both sides of the ball. At half, the Eagles held a 3-point lead after a short field goal with a couple of ticks left, but by the time the third and fourth quarters started winding down, Carroll had busted the score open to a 17-point margin.
Defensively, the Eagles wouldn’t break. Linebackers Riggs Robben and Luke Evans, both seniors, said their performance, pitching a 24-minute shutout in the second and third quarters, was all chalked up to heart.
Evans said in the first quarter his teammates were a little too anxious. The nerves got to them, and that’s why they faced a 14-7 deficit at the end of the first quarter. Once those went away, the game came down to who wanted it more, he said.
Robben said everyone came in doubting them despite beating the same team in the same game in 2014 when Carroll won 39-7.
“This is my last football game of my entire life, and I know it was for a lot of other guys,” Evans said. “I grew up with a lot of these guys, and football gave me some of my best friends, so going out this way, it couldn’t have gone any better.”
That seemed to be the theme for Carroll on Saturday in Pittsburg. Trail said his team’s roster probably wasn’t as talented as Aquinas’, but the Eagles’ heart couldn’t be matched. Helton, held even higher than he stood, said it. Robben said it. And Howell said it, too.
“It’s surreal at this point,” Howell said. “We worked so hard. People doubted us all year, and we overcame the whole season.
“We just showed heart the whole season, and we came out with a state championship.”