By Jason Schock
Falls City Sacred Heart senior Austin Malone intercepted Kenesaw’s Preston Schnitzler in the end zone with 1:33 to play, effectively locking down a wild 62-46 Irish quarterfinal playoff victory Tuesday at Jug Brown Stadium. It was Sacred Heart’s fifth takeaway of the game.
The fifth-ranked defending Class D2 State Champs improved to 9-2 and advanced to next Monday’s semifinal at top-ranked and 11-0 Exeter-Milligan, last year’s D1 Champion, which came back to beat Humphrey St. Francis 28-26 in a thriller at Milligan. Kickoff has been set for 4 p.m.
St. Francis was leading the Timberwolves 26-14 with about seven minutes remaining in that game, but E-M tied it with a touchdown by Kyle Jensen and took the lead on a two-point conversion with two minutes left on the clock. Humphrey SF then drove the length of the field but a pass was intercepted in the final seconds. Monday’s FCSH vs. Exeter-Milligan semifinal is a rematch between last year’s eight-man champs. FCSH will try to avenge a 46-20 Oct. 10 loss and advance to the Nov. 24 state title game.
FCSH senior Sawyer Kean didn’t finish that first meeting with Exeter-Milligan and didn’t get his first touch Tuesday until the second quarter. But does this kid ever make up for lost time. With his team leading 24-22 to start the second half, Kean took the opening kickoff of the third quarter 73 yards to the end zone and added second-half scoring runs of 28 and 38 yards to help FCSH pull away. Kean finished the game with 13 rushes for 189 yards, pushing his season total over 1,100 yards. Kean produced the game’s two most pivotal plays in the fourth quarter. With 8:02 remaining and the Irish leading 48-38, Kean recovered Kenesaw’s fourth lost fumble and, on the ensuing first snap from scrimmage, took a pitch from Malone and went 38 yards untouched down the west sideline into the south end zone to make it 54-38 Irish – the two-point conversion pass from Malone to senior Logan Scheitel made it 56-38.
The Irish can only hope he does the same at Milligan. Back in October, it was Kean’s absence – he was injured in the first half, as FCSH held a 20-8 lead – that ultimately doomed FCSH in that loss. No Kean and a lot of Kyle Jensen, that is. The 190-pound senior T-Wolf rushed for 172 yards and four scores and took a kickoff back 71 yards in leading his team over the Irish.
The Irish never trailed against Kenesaw and though the one-two brotherly punch of Austin and Preston Schnitzler proved to be as good as advertised (Preston rushed 38 times for 293 yards and three touchdowns; Austin, 23 carries, 140 yards, two scores), FCSH held a semi-comfortable two-score lead throughout most of the second half. Thanks, at least in part, to seven-straight successful two-point conversions. Not until the eighth and final score of the night, a 29-yard Malone run with 3:52 remaining, did FCSH fail to tag on the extras.
“I thought it was big, mentally, that we never trailed,” FCSH Head Coach Doug Goltz said. “The PATs were huge – we kind of had them behind the eight ball all night. We had a tough time stopping them, but fortunately we got those turnovers and we needed them. I thought our guys did a good job stripping the ball.
“Offensively, our speed definitely showed – there were times they were in position to make the plays, but time and time again Austin or Sawyer cut back, they over-pursued and we made the plays,” Goltz said.
Goltz praised the play of the Irish linemen, specifically Reggie Johansen, who got out on the perimeter and sprung several of those big runs by Malone and Kean.
“Reggie did a great job getting out there to the corner, which helped Sawyer get free on those runs. He had a really good game at nose guard, too. We had a lot of guys step up,” Goltz said.
Malone, as he has each and every night all fall, executed the option almost flawlessly, even though the frigid southerly winds alone made this a ground-based game. They ran almost every down – Goltz called three passes – but that’s not to say the attack was one-dimensional. A 29-yard pass from Malone to Bailey Witt set up the game’s first score, for instance, but it was Malone’s spot-on reads on the option that continually kept Kenesaw guessing. Early on, quick handoffs to senior Zavan Kirkendall turned into touchdowns. Later, when Kenesaw defended Kean on the edge, Malone kept the ball and cut it up – when they came after him, he pitched to Kean. There was no right answer for the Blue Devils, only wrong ones. A week after accounting for 340 yards and six touchdowns at Stuart, Malone ran through Kenesaw for 181 yards and two scores. Entering the Final Four, Sacred Heart is the team with the best quarterback, a true “dual threat” if there ever was one. Malone has rushed for nearly 1,300 yards, passed for another 1,100 and accounted for 43 touchdowns this season – nearly half of which (19) have come through the air.
Now he’ll get another chance at Exeter-Milligan – alongside Kean, hopefully, for four full quarters.
“Whoever we play will be tough,” Goltz said, prior to the St. Francis-Exeter finish. “Either way, they both have big, strong powerful backs and we’ll have a tough time slowing them down. We’re going to have to score points.”
Sacred Heart can score points and proved it again Tuesday at Jug Brown Stadium. They outscored Kenesaw 24-8 in the third quarter alone.
“That was pretty much the ballgame,” Goltz said. “That gave us some breathing room.”