SIOUX CITY — Riddled with injury problems, the eighth-ranked Creston/Orient-Macksburg Panthers just wanted to find a way to be in the game in the fourth quarter with No. 5 Sioux City Bishop Heelan Wednesday night, with a chance to win the Class 3A playoff opener.
Despite falling behind 13-0 early on two touchdown catches by junior speedster Connor Niles from junior quarterback Trent Solsma, the Panthers did, in fact, climb back into contention in the second half.
Luke Neitzel, moving to running back from quarterback because of a strained thumb on his throwing hand, rumbled into the end zone from the 2 with 9:46 left in the game, drawing the Panthers to within 26-20.
Then came a critical third-down play as Creston/O-M was trying to make a defensive stand and get the ball back. From the Panther 20-yard line, the Crusaders faced a third-and-11 situation.
Solsma fired into the end zone, and Neitzel, from his safety position, made a diving reach to knock away the pass. Had the play stood, Heelan kicker Tyler Stolen, who already had two field goals, would have lined up another try from 37 yards.
But, at the very worst the margin would be nine points, and with a miss, Creston/O-M could tie or win it with one score.
Instead, Neitzel was flagged with pass interference. That set up Tony Tobin’s 9-yard touchdown run with 5:23 remaining. The Crusaders tacked on two late scores with Creston/O-M in a desperate throwing mode, and posted a 47-20 victory in a game that was played much closer for 43 minutes.
“He made the call. You live by it,” Morrison said. “Luke had a nice effort on the play. We just wanted a chance to get the ball back with some time on the clock and have one last drive and win it at the end. Then we went into scramble mode, and we’re not that type of team, obviously.”
Late score hurts
A similar situation occurred before halftime. Panther quarterback Brandon Phipps hit Neitzel on a post pattern for a 23-yard score that pulled Creston/O-M within 16-13 with 48.2 seconds left before halftime.
A squib kickoff designed to neutralize Heelan’s dangerous return game backfired. The Crusaders got the ball on their own 45, with a dangerous aerial attack poised to strike.
Solsma completed a 20-yard pass to Connor Spears. Then, he connected with Niles down the right side for a 36-yard touchdown, putting the hosts up 23-13 at halftime.
That score loomed large when the Panthers faced that 26-20 deficit in the fourth quarter.
“We were just trying to squib it down to the 20 or 25-yard line, and just couldn’t get it past the front row,” Morrison said. “I thought we had a great plan to come up here and win the football game. It came down to giving a good team opportunities to score with a short field, and you can’t do that. But we held our own at times, too.”
Trevor Frain ended up having a big night offensively, both running and receiving. On the Panthers’ first touchdown drive, he broke through an opening for a 57-yard run to the Heelan 18. Three plays later, he fielded a Phipps pass in the short flat, and turned the corner for an 18-yard TD with 5:46 left in the first quarter. Gavin Leith’s kick closed it to 13-7.
Frain had a team-high 69 yards rushing. Neitzel, drawing constant attention from the Crusader defense, managed 43 yards on 20 carries.
Phipps was 9-of-27 passing for 181 yards and two touchdowns. Briar Evans had two catches for 76 yards, Frain caught two balls for 42 yards and Neitzel and Colby Taylor each had a pair of receptions for nearly 30 yards.
“When they had field positions, we held them to field goals a couple times,” Morrison said. “It was kind of like the LC game in that respect, but I thought we had more offensive firepower in this game.”
Heelan’s line, featuring 6-foot-7, 300-pound Bryce Sweeney and Zach Skibinski, 6-3, 225-pound senior, performed well, according to coach Roger Jansen.
“We hadn’t done a very good job running the football in the last three or four weeks, and in order to finish games out, you have to be able to run the football and put some drives together,” Jansen said. “I told the guys, if we are going to win this football game, we’re going to win it up front. I think we had the advantage tonight, at least.”
Still, the Panthers, patching together a revised lineup, presented a strong challenge, the Heelan coach acknowledged.
“Some big plays there at the end kind of opened up the margin, but they are an awfully tough football team,” Jansen said. “Them not having that quarterback at full strength probably hindered them a little bit, but I thought the quarterback stepped in, with probably only six or seven practices, to do the job he did was huge.”
Likewise, Morrison knew his 7-3 team had just gone toe-to-toe with a special opponent.
“They’re definitely a team that will contend for a championship, I think,” Morrison said. “At least I hope so. Our kids had a great turnaround after the Lewis Central game, after the circumstances that were laid before us, with our quarterback situation and our running back. (Bryce McIlravy suffered a broken ankle in the Glenwood game.) Our kids play hard, and they execute a game plan that was given to them. We just didn’t get enough breaks toward the end.”
Niles, who sat out last week’s 21-14 loss to Spencer with a concussion suffered in the Denison game, led Heelan with TD receptions of 33 and 36 yards, finishing with eight receptions for 191 yards. He also sealed the win with a 26-yard interception return for a touchdown with just under four minutes remaining.
“He’s a player, there’s no doubt about that,” Morrison said.
Solsma was 12-of-21 passing for 247 yards. The Crusaders also rushed for 114 yards.
One team left
It was not a stellar night for District 1, winning only one of the four matchups. Lewis Central prevailed over Le Mars, 21-14. In other first-round games involving Districts 1 and 2, Spencer rolled past ADM, 48-19, and Carroll dominated District 1 champion Harlan, 28-7.
Second-round matchups Monday night are Carroll (7-3) at Lewis Central (8-2), and Heelan (9-1) hosting Spencer (7-3) in a rematch of last Friday’s contest.
“Right now, Spencer is a hot team,” Jansen said. “We just have to worry about what we have to do.”