By Jason Schock
Falls City Sacred Heart Head Football Coach Doug Goltz said today that the toughest team would win Monday’s 4 p.m. Class D2 State Football Semifinal at Milligan pitting top-ranked and 11-0 Exeter-Milligan against Goltz’ 9-2 fifth-ranked Irish. The game between the Timberwolves, last year’s Class D1 State Champions, and the Irish, the ‘13 D2 winners, is a rematch of E-M’s 46-20 win over FCSH back on Oct. 10.
That night the Irish lost a 20-8 first-half lead as well as senior running back Sawyer Kean. Furthermore, the tougher team won, Goltz said.
“Our guys are going to have to be tougher,” Goltz said. “I think when things started going downhill on us against Exeter-Milligan, our guys didn’t buck up enough. But I think our guys are good at making adjustments and learning from previous games. I think we’ve really improved since that game. And it’ll make a difference having Sawyer, too.
“Our young guys have played 11 games and naturally they’ve improved a lot,” Goltz said. “And we have to because we’re playing the best team in the class.”
Make no mistake about it, both teams, as well as their fans, will need to be very tough Monday in Milligan. The forecast is for a high temperature of 18 degrees with a stiff 20-mph wind. Compare that with last Tuesday’s frigid 62-46 Irish quarterfinal win over Kenesaw at Jug Brown Stadium: It was cold enough to freeze the water bottles on the sidelines, yet twice as warm as it’s expected to be Monday in Milligan. Goltz, who also serves as athletic director at FCSH, appealed to the Nebraska Scholastic Activities Association, requesting Monday’s D2 games be pushed back to Tuesday, when temperatures are expected to perhaps double and reach near 40, but to no avail. As a visiting team traveling more than 120 miles, the Irish did get the opportunity to select the 4 p.m. kickoff (E-M initially wanted a night game).
“At least we’ll play some of it in daylight,” Goltz said. “But it’s a potentially dangerous situation.”
Goltz said two sideline heaters would be powered up on the Irish bench and the team will travel on a chartered bus, which perhaps most importantly will double as a locker room at halftime.
The Irish advanced to Monday’s semifinal by capitalizing on five Kenesaw turnovers and big games from seniors Austin Malone, Sawyer Kean and Zavan Kirkendall. A week after accounting for 340 yards and six touchdowns at Stuart, Malone ran through Kenesaw for 181 yards and two scores. 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. Kean rushed 13 times for 189 yards – moving past 1,100 on the season – and three touchdowns, and took the opening kickoff of the second half back 73 yards for a score. Kirkendall rushed for his team’s first two touchdowns, recovered half of the Blue Devil’s four lost fumbles, and recorded a tremendous 28 total tackles, two of which came for Kenesaw losses.
The Timberwolves defeated No. 3 Humphrey St. Francis 28-26 in Milligan after trailing by two scores with 6:44 remaining. 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 by Jensen in the final seconds. The winner advances to the 10:15 a.m. Monday, Nov. 24 state title game at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln against the winner of Anselmo-Merna and Maxwell.
Kean didn’t finish that first meeting with Exeter-Milligan and it was his 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 Jensen, that is. The 190-pound senior T-Wolf rushed for 225 yards and four scores and took a kickoff back 71 yards in leading his team over the Irish. Jensen has played in 11 games, which happens to be his average gain per carry.
“It’s going to come down to how well we tackle Jensen,” Goltz said. “We tackled him well in the first half (in October), in the second half, not so well. Basically, we need our top guys to play their best games of the year and the others to stay focused and play tough. The last time we got outplayed in the second half and without Sawyer it was difficult,” he said.
Jensen gained 173 of his 225 game-high yards after halftime back in October. He finished the St. Francis game with 157 yards on 29 carries – one week after gaining 187 and four scores on 24 carries in a lopsided win over Chambers. Jensen has found the end zone nine times already during these playoffs.
“He’s a big, strong, athletic playmaker,” Goltz said. “But I also like to think our playmakers – Sawyer and Austin – will be two of the best players on the field, too. We have guys capable of going the distance every time they touch it.”
Sacred Heart, ideally, on offense wants to spread out the E-M defense and had some success throwing the ball in the first half of that Oct. 10 loss. Tomorrow’s weather conditions, though, will most likely hinder players’ ability to grip the football, which is a vital component of passing and catching. E-M doesn’t air it out regularly, but the Timberwolves successfully utilized a short passing game to stage its comeback win over St. Francis.
Neither team suffered major injuries during the quarterfinals, though the Irish are playing without junior Henry Arnold, who suffered a broken leg in the first round of the playoffs. He’s being replaced by Noah Keller and Christian Harring in the defensive backfield, and junior Bailey Witt, who previously rotated with Arnold and delivered the play call from Goltz to Malone, now remains on the field for every offensive snap.
“We do miss Henry’s speed and experience,” Goltz said. “Those other guys have played well, but it was still a key loss.”