It’s a sports movie cliche, the stuff of after-school specials and family-friendly dramas. But once in a while Life does imitate Art, and when it does, the results can be breathtaking.
Grand Island Central Catholic pulled itself back into contention in the second half before defeating O’Neill 28-27 in overtime Thursday night. With the game and the possibility of continuing their season on the line, the Crusaders saw quarterback Riley Shoemaker throw the game-winning touchdown on fourth and five as he hit Alex Allen on a slant-in.
Mere moments after O’Neill saw its overtime PAT attempt go wide left, GICC kicker Abidan Yax stepped up to the ball, and even though it appeared that a desperate Eagle player got a hand on it, the kick had just enough on it to clear the crossbar and keep Central Catholic (7-2) alive.
Central Catholic coach Charlie Shoemaker told his team after the game that he couldn’t think of another game where his team had overcome so many mistakes and walked away with the win.
“I felt like we didn’t play that well at all,” he said after the game. “We had motion penalties, they ran a 50 front and we struggled to adjust to that — we hadn’t seen that in seven games worth of film, we had issues on special teams. But the kids didn’t panic, and when the game was on the line we found a way to win.”
Quarterback Michael Hedlund directed a game-opening drive by the Eagles (6-3) that saw them take over after a short punt into the teeth of a strong north wind. O’Neill needed only six plays to travel 48 yards.
The Eagles crossed midfield on a 15-yard pass play from Hedlund to Tad Fry, then three plays later running back Tate Laursen broke outside left for 22 yards and a 7-0 lead.
The Crusader offense struggled to develop a rhythm as its first six possessions ended in five punts and a lost fumble. But the Central Catholic defense found its mojo, shutting down the O’Neill offense for almost the entire game, and as the teams traded ends of the field in the second period, the Crusader offense began to win the battle of field position.
With just over a minute to go in the half, Central Catholic tied the score as Shoemaker found Allen in stride down the right hashmark for a 32-yard touchdown.
But instead of going into half with a tied game, the Crusaders watched in dismay as Blake Cunningham picked up the following kickoff and went 85 yards to put O’Neill back on top with the Eagles set to receive the second half kick.
“That was tough,” Shoemaker said. “We finally got a scoring drive and kind of established ourselves, and we were ready to go into halftime. But their kid made a great run, and our return team wasn’t where it was supposed to be.”
O’Neill did move to a first down well inside Crusader territory to open the second half, but a gutsy stand by the GICC defense held on fourth down, and Central Catholic took over at its 26. Shoemaker again went to the air attack, finding Brady Brokaw for 64 yards to again tie the score. Logan Greenwalt ended the next O’Neill possession with an interception, then the Crusaders got a three and out to regain the ball early in the fourth.
This time Shoemaker broke loose through the middle of the line and headed to the right sideline, outsprinting the Eagle defense for a 49-yard touchdown, putting GICC up 21-14. But the Crusaders had the wind in their faces, and their next two possessions ended with poor punts. The second put O’Neill back on offense with three and a half minutes to go in the fourth at the Crusader 46, and Hedlund and company took advantage. Fry outjumped the Central Catholic defense for a 22-yard gain along the sideline, then Derrick Hostert hauled in a five-yard strike to tie the game and force overtime.
In the extra period, O’Neill opened with a double reverse that moved the ball to the one, and Hedlund sneaked in on the next play. But his PAT kick hooked badly to the left and after the Crusaders responded on their possession, the Eagles could only think of what might have been.
“We’re very proud of these guys,” an emotional Brock Eichelberger, O’Neill coach, said after the game. “It’s been 16 years since we’ve been in the playoffs, and they played their hearts out tonight. I just can’t say enough about them.
“We felt pretty good going into the second half, but we gave up two big plays that just shouldn’t have happened. Our defensive backs got pulled up close, and Central Catholic made some nice plays on us.”
O’Neill (6-3)...............................7 7 0 7 6 — 27
GICC (7-2)........................................0 7 7 7 7 — 28
O - Laursen 22 run (Hedlund PAT kick), 7:56.
GICC - Allen 32 pass from Shoemaker (Yax PAT kick), 1:17.
O - Cunningham 85 kickoff return (Hedlund PAT kick), 1:06.
GICC - Brokaw 64 pass from Shoemaker (Yax PAT kick), 5:40.
GICC - Shoemaker 49 run (Yax PAT kick), 9:58.
O - Hostert 5 pass from Hedlund (Hedlund PAT kick), 0:53.
O - Hedlund 1 run (PAT kick failed).
GICC - Allen 5 pass from Shoemaker (Yax PAT kick).
1st Downs 12 10
Yards Rushing 109 168
Yards Passing 123 119
Comp-Att-Int 12-17-2 5-14-0
Fumbles-Lost 1-1 1-1
Punts-Avg 6-31.5 9-25.5
Penalties 5-43 9-55
Rushing — O, Laursen 29-87, Hostert 1-9, Hedlund 10-8, Rieck 4-5. GICC, Shoemaker 30-123, Puncochar 16-43, Pfeifer 2-2.
Passing — O, Hedlund 12-17-2-123. GICC, Shoemaker 5-14-0-119.
Receiving — O, Hostert 7-56, Fry 4-59, McNichols 1-8. GICC, Allen 2-37, Stevenson 2-18, Brokaw 1-64.