KEARNEY — Kearney High didn't play its best football Friday night. Evidently it was required for a victory.
Fueled by a solid rushing attack, Omaha Central (5-4) upset the No. 3-ranked Bearcats 20-18 at Foster Field to advance to the Class A quarterfinals.
“Welcome to playoff football,” KHS coach Brandon Cool said. “If you don't have everything hitting on all cylinders, you're not going to win very many games.”
Kearney's offense had the ball at Omaha Central's 35-yardline with seven seconds left in the game after a successful hook-and-ladder, but Luke McNitt's pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage on a pass to the endzone, sealing the victory for the Eagles.
“It's a tough one to swallow,” Cool said. “We had opportunities to get things done.”
Omaha Central scored on its opening possession, as Noah Gauff connected with Tra-Deon Hollins on a 14-yard play-action pass — the Eagles' only pass completion of the game.
The drive was sparked by a 58-yard kick return from Jackie Davis. It was the beginning of a big night for the senior, who took 28 carries for 142 yards.
“We just decided that we were going to run the ball,” Omaha Central coach Jay Ball said, as his team was without starting quarterback Cameron Dorsey. “We said we've got good backs, good fullbacks, descent linemen and they played great tonight.”
Omaha Central controlled the time of possession throughout the game, eventually taking a 10-0 in the second quarter thanks to a 29-yard field goal from Visit Hkawng.
“That's been the case for those guys all year long,” Cool said of Central. “Number one, they have one of the top five defenses in the state, and number two, they keep the ball away from you. We knew we weren't going to get very many reps, and the reps we got we knew we were going to have to take advantage of.”
The Bearcats put together a 13-play, 63-yard drive that included two successful fourth down conversions to cut Central's lead to 10-6 late in the second quarter. McNitt capped the drive with a five-yard run, but the PAT was unsuccessful due to miscommunication between the snap and hold.
Kearney lost a fumble on its own 17-yardline during the opening drive of the third quarter, which led to another Omaha Central field goal. Devontay LeFlore then broke loose for a 43-yard score on a fullback trap during their next possession to give the Eagles a 20-6 lead.
Kearney responded, as McNitt completed a 20-yard screen pass to Hunter King for six points. Central's Xavier Graham would block the PAT to keep the score at 20-12, which turned out to be one of the biggest plays of the game.
The Bearcat defense was able to force a punt, and McNitt led a 96-yard drive, which included a spectacular 45-yard catch from Ryan Cervantes, to pull Kearney within two after a five yard run from the senior quarterback with 3:32 remaining in the game.
McNitt ran the ball 26 times for 97 yards in addition to over 200 yards passing.
“He's done that all year long, and Caleb (Lundgren) went down, so he had to carry the load a little bit in the run game,” Cool said.
McNitt, however, couldn't bully past Central defenders on the two-point conversion that was stopped short, leaving the Bearcats trailing.
“We had some miscues in the PAT game where we had opportunity to scores some points, and when we needed a stop defensively, sometimes we got it done, sometimes we didn't,” Cool said.
With the clock becoming a factor, Kearney's defense had Central in a third down and nine, but the Eagles pulled out the reverse to Hollins that was good for 13 yards.
“That was a play we talked about at halftime,” Ball said. “We had been running a lot of pitches from that formation. I told coach (Jay) Landstrom to keep reminding of that reverse, and on that play he said, 'Hey coach what about that reverse?'”
The successful third down took precious time of the clock, eventually giving Kearney's offense 61 yards to cover in just 11 seconds. Their time ran out.
“We're pumped,” Ball said. “We're going to find out who the next opponent is and get back to work tomorrow.”
Kearney's season on the other hand, comes to a screeching halt. Despite initial disappointment, Cool believes there is plenty to be proud of.
“What a tremendous year,” he said. “We've had great leadership all year long. Obviously this one is going to burn, there's no doubt about it. But when you reflect on it, they had a tremendous season.”
Omaha Central (6-4)....................7 3 10 0—20
At Kearney (8-2)....................0 6 0 12—18
OC: Tra-Deon Hollins 14 pass from Noah Gauff (Visit Hkawng kick)
OC: Hkawng 29 FG
K: Luke McNitt 2 run (kick failed)
OC: Hkawng 33 FG
OC: Devontay LeFlore 43 run (Hkawng kick)
K: Hunter King 20 pass from McNitt (kick blocked)
K: McNitt 5 run (run failed)
RUSHING: OC, Jackie Davis 28-142, Devontay LeFlore 6-82, Tre Sanders 3-15, Tra-Deon Hollins 1-13, Noah Gauff 6-(minus 2). K, Luke McNitt 26-97, Caleb Lundgren 1-11, Pierce Wright 1-1.
PASSING: OC, Noah Gauff 1-5-1 14. K, Luke McNitt 16-25-0 203.
RECEIVING: OC, Tra-Deon Hollins 1-14. K, Kaden Bruggeman 6-57, Hunter King 4-66, Blake McNeil 3-20, Ryan Cervantes 2-53, Jake Arenz 1-7.