FITHIAN — Oakwood football has a chance to create an opportunity 31 years in the making come Saturday afternoon.
If the Comets (8-2) can win at Pana (9-1) in a Class 2A first-round playoff game that kicks off at 1 p.m. Saturday, Oakwood is into the state quarterfinals for the first time since 1988.
Second-year coach Al Craig’s program will try to follow up last Friday’s 20-0 home win against Nokomis in the first round by doing the same against the Panthers, who beat Oakwood 28-21 last season in a first-round playoff game.
Oakwood’s victory against Nokomis marked only the fourth playoff win in school history and first since coach Marty McFarland’s Comets defeated Macon 27-21 in a 2A second-round playoff game in 1988.
“We were super excited we won and got that monkey off our back, but now that the monkey is gone, you can’t relax,” Craig said. “We want to make a real run at this thing.”
Pana is standing in the way. The Panthers’ only loss this season is a 28-18 setback at undefeated Vandalia on Oct. 18, and Pana’s average margin of victory in its nine wins is 34.2 points.
“They’re probably the fastest team we’ve played in my two years here, and that includes their team last year,” Craig said. “Their passing game is strong, and the offense they play brings its own challenge because it’s not something we see a lot of. You can never replicate that in practice.”
This Pana team has also had the support of its entire community — plus the entire state and other parts of the country — this season after the death of Pana coach Trevor Higgins’ 4-year-old son, Evan, in late July after a tragic swimming accident.
“I did not know coach Higgins before last year’s playoff game between our two teams, but I have nothing but positive things to say after I met him last year,” Craig said. “He probably is the nicest human being I’ve ever met. When a tragedy like that strikes, it makes you hug your loved ones a little tighter. I have a 7-year-old at home, and I can’t even imagine what he’s going through.”
So Saturday’s game between the two small-school programs is perhaps even bigger than football. For Oakwood, though, the Comets want to continue experiencing playoff success the Vermilion County school hasn’t had the chance to enjoy in decades.
With a strong run game bolstered by senior Colby Smiley (104 carries for 804 yards and 8 touchdowns) and sophomore Gaven Clouse (131 carries, 964 yards, 10 TDs), along with an opportunistic senior quarterback in Rhett Harrison (40 of 73 passing, 982 yards, 15 TDs) and a defense that produced the school’s first playoff shutout in 21 postseason games last Friday, Oakwood likes its chances going into Saturday.
Another intriguing factor at play on Saturday? If Oakwood wins at Pana and Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin (9-1) defeats Nashville (9-1) on Saturday afternoon in Bismarck, the two Vermilion Valley Conference schools would meet in a state quarterfinal game next weekend. BHRA handed Oakwood its last loss, defeating the Comets 35-6 on Oct. 11.
“Going into the playoffs, the kids kind of looked at it as a revenge tour,” Craig said. “We didn’t know anything about Nokomis, but then we saw it potentially could be Pana and maybe Bismarck. They want that opportunity to get that revenge again.”