Wildcats turn tables, score last second TD to take down Columbus
Nobody can say Friday’s 4A-DII sub-state contest between Holton and Columbus was lacking for drama, as for the second year in a row one yard and one point were the only things separating the winner and the loser.
The stakes were admittedly higher this time around, with a spot in the state championship game on the line, but once again the home team advanced as Holton scored and managed a successful two-point conversion with 31 seconds left to secure a 23-22 victory over the Titans.
“Statistically, the odds with the way things were going, the best thing was to go for two at that point,” HHS coach Brooks Barta said. “I think what goes around comes around. We had two stops late in the game against what I thought was a really good offense. We kind of turned up the volume on defense and I think we’d kind of wore them out just a little bit.”
“The two stops at the end of the game were something that we didn’t get done early in the season,” Barta said.
It appeared that those hardships paid off in the end, though, for the Wildcats. Close calls against Silver Lake and Maize South prepared Holton to deliver when given another chance with its season on the line and the players were certainly motivated on that game-winning drive.
“It was our last game that we could play at home and we wanted to give it our all,” senior fullback Mason Barta said. “We huddled up and we told each other it was right now. We had to do it right now. Everybody stepped it up, we all played our hardest and we just kept running it.”
Late in the game, it looked like the Wildcats’ shot at state slipped away as Spencer Baum tried to convert a first down to keep a drive alive, but ended up fumbling the ball. The Titans recovered.
It was Holton’s first and only turnover of the game and came with just over three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Baum and the rest of his teammates didn’t lose faith, though.
Baum, a junior, was starting in place of the injured Will Wright and he noted the senior running back was key in helping him stay upbeat for a second chance the defense would deliver.
“That was the turning point in my head. Will Wright really rebuilt my motivation after that because I was really upset in myself,” Baum said. “The team then helped build me back up. They had faith in me and I had to do it for them.”
After the defense forced a three and out, Baum got the ball back on the very first play of the Wildcats’ next drive and immediately paid that faith forward as he ripped off a 32-yard run that put Holton deep in Titan territory.
“He was the best guy for the play that we were running. He runs that play well. That was what we had to do and he got it done,” coach Barta said.
The Wildcats then continued to grind out yards and eventually got a one-yard touchdown run from Mason Barta on third and goal with seconds remaining in the game. After a timeout to talk things over, coach Barta then decided to go for two and the win.
Forcing an offsides by the defense helped put Holton in even better position and Baum then punched in the game-wining two-point conversion for good measure, though he again gave credit to his teammates.
“Anybody could’ve done that, it just happened to be me,” Baum said. “Anybody could’ve done it because the line and all the blockers did such a good job. A truck could’ve drove through that hole.”
Had the Wildcats scored in the red zone a little more consistently, the theatrics would’ve been unnecessary. Holton was turned away inside its opponent’s 20-yard line four times on Friday night. That included an opening 15-play drive that was stopped short at the Titans’ 11-yard line after a botched snap on a field goal attempt.
The defense then forced the Titans’ lone turnover of the night, as Justin Pool intercepted a pass and returned it to the Columbus 17-yard line before the offense came up short again.
With those two failed drives, it left the door open for Columbus to steal the momentum and the visitors did just that, driving 92 yards on the ensuing possession and capping it with a one-yard touchdown run by Ethan Martin to take a 7-0 lead.
Holton responded by going to the air and getting big receptions by Austin Frakes (27 yards) and Baum, who scored his one touchdown of the night on a 14-yard pass, tying the game at 7-7. He also finished the night with 129 rushing yards on 18 carries.
The teams remained tied at halftime after the Wildcats’ last heave came up a little short, but Columbus wasted no time retaking the lead in the third quarter.
An encroachment call on Holton kept the Titans’ drive going early and then Columbus running back Jace McDown, the state’s leading rushing, started to gain some steam. McDown broke free for a 46-yard run after that penalty and then sprinted into the end zone from 12 yards out to finish the drive and put the Titans ahead 15-7.
Following a turnover on downs, the Wildcats showed their resilience once again as Frakes came up with a big tackle for loss on defense to force a punt and Holton responded with a big play as Justin Rieschick weaved his way through the Columbus defense on the way to a 57-yard touchdown run.
“We felt like we needed to play four quarters of football and I felt like we did. I think we still made some mistakes through the game, but played hard for four quarters of football,” Barta said.
If not for some of those mistakes, Barta noted the team could’ve broken even more big plays, but the Wildcats had trouble containing a pair of strong linebackers for Columbus and he noted the red zone struggles came from Holton not executing against some minor defensive shifts by the Titans.
Holton seemed to make plays when it needed to and after McDown’s second touchdown of the night, a 40-yard run, the defense really cracked down for the Wildcats.
Trailing 22-15 at that point, the HHS defense then forced two punts and a turnover on downs on the Titans’ final three possessions as the Wildcats hustled around and made Columbus earn everything it got on offense. The Titans were held relatively in check, as the offense averaging more than 500 yards a game could only manage 274 against Holton on Friday.
After the second defensive stop, the Wildcats went on their game-winning drive and put on full display the evolution of the team that has pushed HHS to the brink of its fourth state title in school history.
“I think the win in that situation is a culmination of everything this team has been through this season, continuing to focus on not what you can’t control but what you can control and wanting to improve,” Barta said. “I thought down the stretch we were the better conditioned and more physical football team when it mattered the most.”
“I’m just really excited for them, everything they’ve been through. I said in the locker room after the Nemaha Central game, I felt like this team can play in a state championship game and I felt that way going into this game and now we’re here.”
The Wildcats (9-3) will now prepare to take on the Longhorns of Holcomb (10-2) at 1 p.m. on Saturday in Salina with a 4A-DII state title on the line.
Nov. 20, 2015
HHS: 64 plays, 382 total yards, one turnover and three penalties for 15 yards.
Col.: 56 plays, 274 total yards, one turnover and five penalties for 37 yards.
Rushing: HHS- Rieschick (11-82-1 TD), Pool (9-41), Barta (22-90), Baum (18-129), Zeller (1-0); CHS- McDown (25-163-2 TDs), Robinson (6-32), Morrill (6-16), Martin (2-10-1 TD), Hale (1-5).
Passing: HHS- Rieschick (2-3-41-1 TD); CHS- Robinson (10-16-48-1 INT).
Receiving: HHS- Frakes (1-27), Baum (1-14-1 TD); CHS- Morrill (6-41), Martin (2-7), Babbitt (1-2), Smith (1-(-2)).
Defense: HHS- Frakes (11 tackles, 1 TFL), Aeschliman (13 tackles), Zeller (10 tackles, 1 TFL), Barta (9 tackles), Haussler (7 tackles, 1 TFL), Pool (4 tackles, INT), Rieschick (5 tackles), Lehnherr (5 tackles).