For the second week in a row, the Class D2 top-ranked (yet fourth-seeded) Falls City Sacred Heart Irish found themselves trailing a visiting underdog after a half of football as they vanished underneath Jug Brown Stadium, trailing fifth-seeded (but unrated) Randolph 12-8 in the second round of the state playoffs on a warm but windy Wednesday in Falls City. It’s a locker room, not a phone booth, but FCSH, as it did in Round One against Emerson-Hubbard, reemerged onto the field as a better version of itself and outlasted the quick-strike Cardinals in a 34-26 victory.
Randolph lost the turnover battle, losing a fumble and throwing an interception, while FCSH didn’t turn it over at all, but FCSH’s effort was riddled with penalties: 11, to be exact; 77 yards worth. The Irish overcame it, grinding out 13 of its 18 first downs after halftime.
Irish junior fullback Austin Ahern, a 193-pounder, drove the bus for 9-1 Sacred Heart, which hits the road to either Humphrey St. Francis or Osceola next Tuesday for the quarterfinals. He carried it 17 times for 113 yards in the second half, rushing for a pair of critical fourth-quarter touchdowns to both give his team its third lead and the insurance to preserve it. His four-yarder, coming with 9:09 remaining, broke a 20-20 stalemate and capped a 10-play, 78-yard drive that proved to be among the most important sequence of events in this game.
Randolph, an explosive team that averaged 58 points per game the second half of the season, had previously been turned away with first and goal from the nine. Key stops by Ahern, Theo Rohrer and Noah Keller set up a pivotal fourth and goal from the three. Junior QB Mason Stubbs handed off to the shifty Drew Loberg, a 165-pound junior who entered the game having rushed for 1,338 yards, and who ripped through the Irish defense and scampered 45 yards to hit pay dirt in the third quarter, but the Cards’ elusive back was met by 298-pound junior Bryant Jorn, who stuffed the play and ended the threat at the two.
The Irish first went to sophomore Christian Harring, who carried it out to the six, then followed that with a tough eight-yard run to the 14, before being stopped by 215-pound senior Grant Brunssen. Then the Irish, playing with a 20-mph wind at its back, went to work through the air. Though he attempted just one pass the entire first half, FCSH senior QB Bailey Witt first tried to get the lead with a single toss, slightly overthrowing senior Henry Arnold as Sacred Heart’s fastest player slipped behind the Cardinal secondary and glided down the sideline. A six-yard throw to Emerson Keithley set up third-and-five at the Irish 20 and Harring’s number was called once again. Witt hit him at the 35, good enough for the first down, but he wasn’t finished. Harring made two would-be tacklers miss and carried it all the way to the Randolph 20. A seven-yard QB keeper by Witt, on third-and-six from the 16, kept the drive alive, and a pair of punishing inside handoffs to Ahern took it the rest of the way. Ahern was stopped on the two-point conversion, but the Irish had a 24-20 lead they’d never surrender.
On the Cards’ ensuing drive, a three-and-out and a bobbled long snap allowed Sacred Heart to set up shop at the Randolph 32 with 7:23 to play. On the first snap from scrimmage, the handoff went yet again to Ahern, who this time ran through a big hole and rumbled 32 yards for the touchdown. It was his third of the game, after his six-yarder on the first play of the second quarter tied the game at six. He finished with a game- and career-high 23 carries for 146 yards.
Randolph went to the air — the Cards turned it over on downs after getting one first down; but got it back and made things interesting when Stubbs found 6-4 senior wideout Landyn Anderson for the seventh time of the day, this one for a 35-yard TD with just under two minutes remaining, it became a one-score deficit and Randolph was alive and kicking. The Cardinals defense held enough to get the ball back with under 20 second left, but a Stubbs pass was intercepted by Harring at the Irish 22 with two and a half seconds remaining to put it on ice for FCSH.
Loberg finished with 95 yards on 17 carries and the touchdown; he also caught a trio of passes for 46 yards and another TD – a 25-yarder coming on fourth-and-five on the first drive of the second quarter. The conversion was no good, but Randolph had regained the lead at 12-8 and kept it the rest of the half. The first score of the game also came via the forward pass and capped Randolph’s most impressive drive of the night. It began at their own 23 with 4:53 remaining in the opening period. A nine-yard run by 6-4 junior Logan Nordhues and a pair of Stubbs-to-Anderson completions of nine and 13 yards, respectively, as well as a defensively holding penalty, had the Cards in business. On a second-and-seven from the Irish 12, Stubbs hit Nordhues for a 12-yard TD strike. Stubbs rushed 10 times for just 11 yards, but completed 14-of-28 passes for 186 yards and three scores. He was picked off once. Anderson hauled in 92 yards in receptions.