Gonzaga’s Hunter Stewart punched the football loose on a routine handoff, and teammate Sean Johns fell on it. Three plays later, Lucas Warfield scampered into the end zone from 18 yards out to put the Eagles up two touchdowns.

Warfield’s score sealed No. 9 Gonzaga’s 24-17 win over No. 6 Good Counsel on Friday in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference semifinals in the stinging cold in Olney. The Eagles will face either St. John’s or DeMatha, who will play in Northwest Washington on Saturday in the other semifinal, in the championship game next week at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. 

The victory capped six years’ worth of anticipation for the Eagles to return to the conference final. In 2011, their presence was a mere formality in Good Counsel’s 42-0 romp. Gonzaga hasn’t won the conference since 2002. 

This was certainly not supposed to be the year for such a run, not after the Eagles graduated the school’s all-time leading rusher in May and Coach Randy Trivers tapped freshman Caleb Williams as the starting quarterback.

“There’s been years we’ve been really excited, we felt like we had a chance to get to the championship,” senior tight end Robbie Mangas said. “This year we felt differently.”

But after a topsy-turvy conference schedule — during which Gonzaga lost to this same Good Counsel team, 27-7 — the Eagles emerged as the conference’s No. 3 seed and with the chance to challenge for a championship.

The Eagles (8-3, 3-2 WCAC) did not talk about the earlier matchup with the Falcons in the week leading up to the semifinal, Mangas said, or about the loss the week before against archrival St. John’s. 

Players have the letters “NEF,” short for “Now Embrace Finish,” stuck to the bumpers of their helmets. Trivers’s word of the week to the group was “now,” as in: focus on this game “now” and worry about the legacy of this season later.

On Friday, it worked. Warfield rushed for 89 yards on 14 carries. Williams threw for 135 yards and a score on 6-for-12 passing. Good Counsel (8-3, 4-1 WCAC) rushed for 136 yards in the first half but only 38 yards in the second.

To end the second quarter, the Gonzaga defense forced Falcons quarterback Kam Snell to hurry his throw to a wide open receiver on fourth and goal from the 6 yard line. The pass was short. Gonzaga rushed off the field with all the momentum. That stop turned into the team’s seven-point margin of victory.

“We need all the momentum we can get,” junior defensive end Joseph Wete said. “This feels fantastic, but we got one more week.

“It doesn’t mean anything if we don’t win next week.”