A week after their town was ripped apart by a tornado with nearly 200-mile-per-hour winds, the Washington High School football team put up a gallant effort today before falling in the Illinois state semifinals.
The 44-14 defeat to top-seeded Sacred Heart-Griffin in Springfield marked the end of a historic season for Washington, in which the Panthers rattled off 12 straight wins and advanced to the semis for the first time in nearly three decades.
In the wake of the devastating tornadoes last Sunday that killed one person in Washington and eight total across the Midwest, communities across Illinois banded together to support the Panthers.
Semifinal opponent Sacred Heart-Griffin helped pay for buses to bring Washington's fans to the game. Earlier in the week, Illinois State University donated their stadium for Washington to use for practice.
In all, 10 of Washington's players lost their homes in the tornado, including senior quarterback Colton Marshall.
"I'm staying with one of my best friends," Marshall said. "He lives on the south side of town. My family is staying with some family friends on the east side."
The players and coaches spent a few days this week cleaning up from the massive storm.
"If you looked at our whole town in general, one of the things you would say is the toughness -- when you get knocked down, you have to get back up," head coach Darrell Crouch said.
For the Washington team, football provided a welcome escape from the adversity of the past week.
"It's hard to figure out where football is going to weigh in your life when you just lost your home, your car and, of course, everything else," Crouch said. "But I thought our focus level of the kids was pretty good."
Washington fell behind early Saturday, trailing 14-0 at the end of the first quarter. But the Panthers struck first in the second quarter, getting to within 14-7 before Sacred Heart-Griffin racked up nine points in the last minute of the half to lead 23-7 at the break.
In the second half, Washington cut the deficit to nine before Sacred Heart-Griffin pulled away.