A recap of opening-round playoff action for the five qualifiers from the Vermilioon Valley Conference:
The Blue Devils (6-4) had to overcome more adversity than playing on the road against a one-loss opponent to open the postseason last Saturday.
Rushing leader Reed Collins, a sophomore slowed by a knee injury sustained in the regular-season finale against Schlarman, carried twice in the Blue Devils’ first possession and then not again.
“He couldn’t cut and I didn’t want to get him injured any further,” B-H coach Mark Dodd said.
Collins was withheld from the offensive platoon — but played about half of the game on defense — until OT.
“I asked if he could go one play and he said, ‘Yes,’” Dodd said. “We threw him a screen pass and he scored.”
Collins’ TD gave B-H a 20-14 lead, which grew to 21-14 when Ian Park drilled his third straight extra point at Staunton.
That kick made the difference. Staunton also scored an overtime TD, but was unsuccessful on its two-point conversion. B-H held on for a 21-20 triumph.
The win was the third all-time for Bismarck-Henning in the playoffs. The team’s most recent postseason win, in 2002, was a 33-32 double-overtime conquest of Flanagan.
Collins’ absence dictated what the Blue Devils were able to emphasize on offense.
“We weren’t able to consistently run the ball, so we had to resort to something we don’t normally do,” Dodd said.
Quarterback Michael Grant had a season-high in passing attempts (18) and yardage (138) as well as touchdown passes (three).
Adam Baker hauled in the first two scoring strikes and gained 114 yards.
“Adam made some big plays and I was pleased the way Michael handled the offense,” Dodd said.
Collins’ status for Saturday’s second-round game against a Maroa-Forsyth squad which was top-ranked in Class 2A three of the first four weeks has not been determined.
“Hopefully, a few more days of rest will get him feeling better,” Dodd said.
For the season, Collins has a team-high 968 yards rushing.
While the B-H offense struggled last week, the defense did not.
“It was a great team effort,” Dodd said. “We buckled down defensively.”
The team’s top three tacklers each reached a season-high for stops. Ross Darby had 20 tackles, Dakota Patton had 14 and Josh Kessler had 10.
Darby had five tackles for loss and Patton had two quarterback sacks.
Kyle Lamm, a 5-foot-8 junior cornerback, played “one of his best games,” according to Dodd.
He was matched up with a 6-foot-5 receiver and held his ground even as Staunton repeatedly tested Lamm.
“On the second play of the game, he got an offensive pass interference call,” Dodd said.
As for Maroa-Forsyth, Dodd said, “They at a different place than we are. We are happy to be in the playoffs and ecstatic to get a win. For them, it is expected.
“It’s two different stages for two different programs.”
When Bismarck-Henning returned home last week, it received a fire-truck escort into town and a gathering of nearly 500 persons met the bus at the high school.
“It was like a spontaneous community hug,” Dodd said.
This was the sixth consecutive year that Maroa-Forsyth opened with a first-round playoff win. In four of the other years, the team was also victorious in the second round.
The Trojans will be the fifth opponent (along with St. Thomas More, Hoopeston Area, Schlarman and Georgetown-Ridge Farm/Chrisman) which runs a spread offense, though Dodd noted, “these guys play at a high level and their team speed is pretty scary.”
Saturday’s kickoff is scheduled for 1:30 p.m.
MILFORD/CISSNA PARK (8-2)
The Bearcats scored first against Knoxville, on a 3-yard run by Kyle Evans, but the remainder of the game’s points were scored by the visitors and MCP’s postseason run ended in the opening game.
Coach Nate Albaugh said it was a game where his team couldn’t get everything clicking at the same time.
“As far as our passing game, our quarterback misfired several times in the first half and in the second half, our receivers dropped some passes,” Albaugh said. “We couldn’t quite put it together. We’re a big-play team, but we couldn’t get our big plays. They took away lot of our basic stuff. We could not get our running game rolling after that first drive.”
Kyle Popham was the Bearcats’ top rusher with 61 yards. Kristopher Evans completed 6 of 15 passes for 43 yards. Justin Flinkman had his ninth multi-catch game, hauling in four passes for 30 yards.
“Defensively, they were able to stop us better than anyone else had all year,” Albaugh said.
Though Knoxville posted a 30-6 victory, Albaugh was satisfied with the play of the defense.
“Our defense was hard-hitting and played very well,” Albaugh said. “We allowed two big plays, and both times we chased the guy down.”
Alex Rabe had a goal-line tackle at the 1-yard line and Flinkman had a stop inside the 10.
“They showed a lot of heart and never quit,” Albaugh said.
Andrew Kelnhofer had a team-high 14 tackles and played as he has the latter part of the season.
“He was flying to the football and pursuing everything,” Albaugh said.
Other team defensive leaders were Kyle Evans (12 tackles), Flinkman (10 tackles) and Alex Kaeb (nine).
Albaugh said it took time this season for the defense to become consistent.
“It’s one thing to get great athletes to catch footballs and run away from people,” Albaugh said, “but it’s another to teach them to defend, and how football is such a physical game. Those things took time. For a team that is mostly new to defense, it has been a long teaching year, but they were very physical against a team that was stronger, bigger and more physical than them.”
SALT FORK (8-2)
The Storm had one of its best defensive efforts, not yielding a touchdown until the final minute of a 10-0 loss to visiting Hardin-Calhoun.
“We played well enough to win defensively,” coach Brian Plotner said.
The Storm forced the visitors to settle for a field goal on their first drive and the score remained 3-0 until Salt Fork gambled on a fourth-and-2 from their own 32, hoping to get the ball back.
“He busted through our line against our goal-line defense,” Plotner said.
The play went to the Storm 2-yard line and Calhoun scored the clinching touchdown on the next play.
Offensively, Salt Fork was unable to sustain many drives, managing just 99 yards of total offense in the playoff opener at Catlin.
“Every year we’ve told them you have to play your best game to advance and unfortunately we didn’t play our best game,” Plotner said. “It’s a hard lesson to learn, a bitter pill to swallow.”
Cody Davis was the team’s top rusher with 52 yards. Blake Bodine was the leading receiver with 14 yards. Quarterback Joe Pratt completed 3 of 13 passes, but also had three passes intercepted.
“Offensively, we were not able to get a push up front and they stymied us,” Plotner said. “I wish we could have performed a little better. If we’d have played well, we would have had a chance to win. That’s what’s disappointing.”
Salt Fork’s special teams units helped the Storm have favorable field position.
“In the second half, we won the field position battle,” Plotner said.
Several players returned from injury to contribute against Calhoun. Two-way lineman Jake Manning saw most of his time on the defensive platoon.
“He has earned my admiration and respect from what he has done,” Plotner said. “He finished his career on the field and contributed as best he could.”
The Storm suffered a serious loss on their second offensive possession when guard/linebacker Matt Delbridge reinjured the knee which had sidelined him for three complete games and parts of two others. He was unable to return.
“We hope to have him back and ready to go next year,” Plotner said. “He’ll be a tremendous two-way player next year. He probably would have been our tackling leader if he’d been healthier.
“This is one of those years where we’ve battled more injuries than in the past.”
Defensively against Calhoun, the top Salt Fork tacklers were Tony Marrow (14), Jordan Hallett (11) and Aaron Taylor (nine), who returned to action after an illness kept him out of the two previous games.
“Always the No. 1 goal is to find a way to get to the five- or six-win mark (and make the playoffs),” Plotner said. “From that standpoint, we accomplished our No. 1 goal.”
The playoff appearance was the team’s ninth in a row and 11th in the past 12 seasons.
The Comets finished the season with a three-game losing streak after a first-round 48-8 Class 3A playoff loss at St. Joseph-Ogden.
The outcome wasn’t what coach Gary Denhart wanted, but he was pleased that O/A-P forced the Spartans to alter their original plan of attack in order to be successful.
“We put nine guys in the box and thought, ‘Who could throw the ball in the rain?’ but he (SJ-O’s Blake Hoveln) did,” Denhart said. “What impressed me was how their quarterback threw the ball in the rain (completing nine of 10 first-half passes for 172 yards).
“That football was soaking wet and covered in mud and he zipped it in there.”
Without rushing leader Ryan Strange, sidelined by injury, the Comets were missing an integral part of their attack. Quarterback Trace McClintock rushed for a team-high 142 yards and Arlen Kerst picked up 37 yards.
“McClintock and Kerst had decent games, but we couldn’t get to the perimeter,” Denhart said. “The minute we couldn’t get to the perimeter, St. Joe blitzed its inside linebackers and we couldn’t get outside of them.
“We went to the no-huddle offense and it worked. Trace did a pretty good job of running the option and we could move the ball.”
Kerst (10 tackles), Zack Grubb (nine) and Joseph Garrett (six) were the Comets’ top tacklers, McClintock picked off his team-leading fourth interception.
Denhart was pleased by the turnaround for his team, which was coming off a 3-6 season.
“Last year, people put expectations on us probably a little too high and we didn’t live up to them,” he said. “This year was the opposite. Nobody was expecting us to win and we did the opposite.
“They came together as a team and it was a pretty satisfying year.”
Though O/A-P was the underdog at SJ-O, Denhart said, “our kids didn’t back down. They weren’t in awe of St. Joe. We lost in the playoffs, but a lot more teams lose (in the regular season) and don’t make it.”
The Tigers fell behind early, but closed within 7-6 of Marshall on Matt Maser’s 76-yard pass to Brandon Pratt in the final 2 minutes of the first period.
The momentum, however, slipped away immediately when Marshall increased its margin to 14-6 less than 30 seconds after Westville scored.
“They were a better football team,” Westville coach Guy Goodlove said.
Marshall was able to accomplish the most important factor that determined the outcome of its 27-6 triumph.
“Any time you play on a field in the shape it was (wet and soggy), you’ll win the game along the line of scrimmage,” Goodlove said. “They won the battle in the trenches. They were able to open holes.”
After the first quarter, Marshall managed just one more TD, but put the game out of reach by connecting on 2 of its final 3 field goal attempts.
“It’s very difficult to stop a team like that,” Goodlove said. “For us to hold them to field goals is a credit to our defense.”
For the Tigers, Goodlove said a bright spot was “Maser’s ability to scramble and throw.”
The junior completed 8 of 17 passes for 96 yards, raising his season total to 950 yards. Pratt, Ryan Blue and Zach Martin all had two receptions.
One of the defensive catalysts was middle linebacker Brendon Severado, who shared the team-lead in solo tackles (six) with Maser.
“Brendon has played very well all season and again did a nice job,” Goodlove said.
In retrospect, Goodlove said the biggest factor in the team’s overall record was the disciplinary suspensions which sidelined several players for five games.
“There will always be a question, “How good would we have been if we hadn’t had to deal with what we had to deal with?’” Goodlove wondered. “This team had great potential, but never reached it.
“This was a very frustrating year, knowing that this team had the potential to be very, very good.”
Even when the Tigers had all of their personnel available for their final three games, Goodlove said, “then we were dealing with sickness.”
Achieving a playoff berth was no small feat, he said.
“The positive thing is that it would have been easy to give up and get down,” he said. “Some kids on the team didn’t allow us to do that. They were young kids and the seniors. That’s something we can build on, but we didn’t have to be put in that position.
“Because of our decision-making (outside of football), we made things tougher on ourselves. Hopefully, we can learn something from that.”