Irish lose 22-6 lead, a 2nd tunnel walk

It was deja vu all over again in Milligan for FC Sacred Heart Monday, as the Irish, just like in October, saw a double-digit first half lead evaporate under the feet of Timberwolves running back Kyle Jensen while its high-powered offense was held scoreless throughout the entire second half. The 195-pound Jensen, who averaged 11 yards per carry and finished the game with 200 yards rushing on 34 carries, led his team back from a 22-6 second quarter deficit to post a 28-22 Class D2 semifinal victory over FCSH in a battle of 2013 8-man state champs. The Irish lead was two points, 22-20, by halftime and Exeter-Milligan took the lead for good with 8:33 to play in the third quarter when Sam Zeleny passed to Dustin Axline for a 12-yard touchdown. Jensen carried in the two-point conversion. The Zeleny-to-Axline connection came on 4th-and-6.

Exeter-Milligan improves to 12-0 with its 25th straight victory and advances to next Monday morning’s state title game against Anselmo-Merna. The Irish, meanwhile, finish 9-3, with all three losses coming against teams that hoisted state title trophies last fall and two against a team that in all likelihood will do so again in a week.

They also finish with thoughts of what could’ve been. The game was both eerily similar to the teams’ first meeting and at the same time nothing like it. One play here or there and a different team wins this Monday and, likely, next.

“When you lose by four touchdowns, you don’t second-guess yourself as much,” FC Sacred Heart Head Coach Doug Goltz said. The coach with seven state titles and an ongoing state-record streak of 28 consecutive playoff appearances said it’s these close ones that hurt the most. And if you do the simple math, you realize that unparalleled generations-spanning success like Sacred Heart’s doesn’t come without a price. The impression that it’s been one November mosh pit at midfield after another is misguided. Actually, the math says that for every 63-14 season-ending triumph in the warmth glow of the limelight there have been three – THREE! – heart-breakers in cold, dark fields in Milligan, or Humphrey, or Dodge, or Howells. The thrill of victory and agony of defeat, in reality, are very familiar with one another when you’re reaching for brass rings.

Most all the players braving the steely northeast wind chill Monday did so with warm and shiny thoughts dancing in their heads. Exeter is playing in a third consecutive final, while FCSH wraps up an ongoing state record 28-straight playoff appearance. Something had to give. Neither is accustomed to losing, but someone had to.

“I’m really proud of these kids,” Goltz said. “These same guys went 1-3 in eighth grade. I don’t think anybody thought they’d be playing in a state semifinal. They really came around – anybody who saw that first game (a season-opening loss to North Andrew, MO) probably thought we could lose four or five games this year because we weren’t very good. They learned a lot and improved a heck of a lot as the season went on. We just came up a little bit short.”

The coach who addressed the High School Hall of Fame one Sunday this fall – and will again down the road – second-guessed himself.

“In hindsight, I probably should’ve run the ball more. We needed to get Sawyer more touches. Especially after the blocked punt. Should’ve tried to run it,” he said, his voice trailing off somewhat, indicating this was a hard game for everyone involved. A very hard game to lose.

“It was just one of those nights – a play here, a play there,” Goltz said.

Despite losing a two-possession lead, the Irish still had opportunities to leave with a win. A fourth-down Austin Malone pass to junior Bailey Witt with 4:11 to play was thought to be a catch by even objective observers, and a blocked punt by senior Zavan Kirkendall once again had FCSH knocking on the Timberwolves’ door. The would-be game-tying connection from Malone to Witt came at the end of FCSH’s most successful drive of the second half. After another goal line stand, the Irish took over at their own three-yard-line with 7:25 to play. Trailing by six, they started marching. A 12-yard Kean run took it out to the 17; an eight-yard hook to Witt went for another eight; a nine-yard Malone-to-Logan Scheitel gained nine and three Malone keepers moved FCSH inside the T-Wolves’ 25-yard-line, facing third-and-two with 4:33 to play. An incompletion set up a big fourth down and Goltz gambled, electing to not only throw, but go for it all on a hook-and-go route to Witt. As designed, the defense bit on the short route, allowing Witt to slip behind the one-on-one coverage.

“It worked the way it was supposed to, but they called it incomplete. We all thought it was a catch. He grabbed it above his head, brought it back down to his waist. As the players hit the ground, the kid reached in and popped the ball out – but I thought he held it long enough. But the ref said no,” Goltz said. “And then we had another shot to get it in the end zone and couldn’t.”

Exeter gained just four yards in three snaps on its ensuing drive and, following a five-yard delay of game penalty, snapped deep to punt from its own 19. Kirkendall, who recorded a eye-popping 28 tackles in the quarterfinal win over Kenesaw, crashed through the line and got a hand on the punt. It sailed out of bounds one yard later. The Irish set up with 1:58 left with 1st and 10 at the E-M 20. But a trio of incompletions and an interception ended that threat. The wicked cold temps (wind chill was below freezing before kickoff, before the sun bid farewell), and 20-mph winds didn’t provide ideal conditions for an Irish offensive attack based on speed and open space. Malone entered the game with 1,074 passing yards and 19 TDs to just a pair of interceptions. On this frigid night, though, the 1,000-1,000 dual threat maestro managed just 3-of-14 passing and was picked three times.

An Exeter-Milligan touchdown pass with 40 seconds left in the first half cut FC Sacred Heart’s lead to two, 22-20, after the Irish owned a 22-6 second-quarter lead with about five minutes remaining in the opening half. A successful Jensen two-point conversion run would’ve tied the game if not for a holding penalty that made the Timberwolves try again from the 13-yard-line; FCSH held to keep its two-point lead entering halftime.

Kean took a 78-yard kickoff return back to the house and added the two-point conversion run to give his team a 14-6 lead with 9:46 to play in the opening half. Four minutes later, a Bryant Jorn fumble recovery at the Timberwolves five-yard-line set up a five-yard TD run by senior QB Austin Malone and two-point conversion run by Kean to give FCSH a 22-6 lead with 5:58 to play in the first half. Jensen can claim ownership of the second half – in both these teams’ meetings (he rushed for 175 of his 225 yards in the second half of the 46-20 Oct. 20 E-M win) – but Kean was king in the first half Monday. Sixteen of those 22 first-half points came courtesy of the senior’s legs, which carried the Irish offense to the tune of 1,264 yards and 9.4 yards per carry in ’14. His 15-yard TD run gave FCSH a 6-0 lead it wouldn’t surrender until the third quarter. And though FCSH’s offense was held to 182 rushing yards – 105 fewer than its per game average coming in – Kean’s 81 yards on 14 carries (5.8 per) was hardly indicative of a struggling run game.

Another Jensen five-yard touchdown run with 9:58 to play in the second quarter tied the rematch at 6-6 Monday afternoon. Malone helped snuff a Jensen run on the two-point conversion attempt. Another Jensen TD with 4:05 and successful two-point conversion attempt made it a one-score game four minutes before intermission: 22-14.

A goal line stand and nine-play, 70-yard touchdown drive, capped by Kean’s 15-yard scoring run, gave FC Sacred Heart a 6-0 lead over the unbeaten Timberwolves. Unfortunately, playing from behind was at that point nothing new to E-M. In addition to that Oct. 10 comeback against FCSH, Exeter was coming off a two-point win over Humphrey St. Francis in which it trailed by two scores with less than seven minutes to play.

Malone appeared to give his team an 8-0 lead with the two-point conversion run, but a late penalty flag took the points off the board and made FCSH try again from the 15. A Malone pass attempt was no good.

Those two points would’ve been big. That play was big – they all, as it turned out, were big.

“This was a tough game for our players,” Goltz said, referring to all the factors, particularly the bitter cold conditions. “It’s a game you don’t want to play in very often.”

Not that they wouldn’t do it all again tomorrow, if given the chance. Especially the seniors.

“These six seniors did a great job all year – they’re a tough group,” Goltz said, speaking of Malone, Kean, Scheitel, Kirkendall, Ben Mullins and Samuhl Arnold. “Hopefully next year we can keep it going, but we’ll miss this group. They’re competitors.”

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