A multitude of Nebraska high school football playoff memories on and off the field.
Published Nov. 22, 2015
Column by Stu Pospisil / World-Herald staff writer
ields like skating rinks, fireworks after every touchdown, a player tweeting how many yards he’ll get — and nearly hitting the number on the mark.
After 40 years of high school football playoffs in Nebraska, you think just about everything possible has happened. Until the news that a game this month — November, mind you — in Mullen was terminated by lightning. And it almost happened a second time last Monday when Burwell’s home semifinal against Clearwater-Orchard barely got done before a thunderstorm rolled in.
Most state titles
Omaha Creighton Prep: 9
Lincoln Southeast: 9
Norfolk Catholic: 9
David City Aquinas: 7
Falls City Sacred Heart: 7
Lincoln Pius X: 6
Consecutive state championships
Falls City SH: 6 (1989-94)
Howells: 6 (2000-05)
Om. Creighton Prep: 5 (1985-89)
Dodge: 4 (1994-97)
Cambridge: 3 (1996-98)
Grant: 3 (1978-80)
Grant: 3 (1988-90)
Howells: 3 (2008-10)
Norfolk Catholic: 3 (2010-12)
Most times in finals
Omaha Creighton Prep: 16
Norfolk Catholic: 15
Lincoln Southeast 12
David City Aquinas: 11
Battle Creek: 9
Consecutive years in finals
Falls City SH: 6 (1989-94)
Howells: 6 (2000-05)
David City Aquinas: 5 (2011-2015)
Om. Creighton Prep: 5 (1985-89)
Dodge: 4 (1994-97)
Howells: 4 (2008-11)
Lawrence: 4 (1980-83)
Lawrence-Nelson: 4 (1999-2002)
McCook: 4 (2002-05)
Millard North: 4 (2002-05)
Norfolk Catholic: 4 (2009-12)
Most times in playoffs
>> Class leaders denoted
A: Omaha Creighton Prep, 37
8-2: Humphrey St. Francis, 33
Falls City Sacred Heart, 32
C-1: Norfolk Catholic, 32
Omaha Westside, 30
C-2: Fremont Bergan, 29
B: Aurora, 29
Battle Creek, 29
Grand Island, 29
8-1: Bloomfield, 28
Consecutive Playoff Years
>> Class leaders denoted
8-2: Falls City Sacred Heart, 29 (1987-present)
8-1: Bloomfield, 28 (1988-present)
A: Omaha Creighton Prep, 21 (1995-present)
Humphrey St. Francis, 21 (1995-present)
B: Elkhorn, 20, (1995-2014)
C-1: Norfolk Catholic, 20 (1996-present)
Chase County, 18 (1996-2013)
C-2: Hastings St. Cecilia, 17 (1999-present)
Pierce, 17 (1998-2014)
Anselmo-Merna, 16 (2000-present)
Hartington Cedar Catholic, 16 (1999-2014)
McCook, 16 (2000-present)
Papillion-La Vista, 16 (1985-2000)
» Capsules: 40 years of Nebraska football playoffs
» Class A: Longtime backfield mates Anderjaska, Lallman provide continuity for Millard West
» Eight Man-1: After big loss in final last year, BDS is back
» Eight Man-2: Flyers hope to chart new route
The Nebraska School Activities Association instituted the playoffs in 1975, and teams immediately groused about the qualifying system. They still do. Only four teams went to the playoffs in each class at that time. Twenty years later, for 1995 and 1996, Classes C-1 and C-2 had every team advance in the postseason. Now it’s 16 of 28 teams making the playoffs in Class A, 16 of 32 in B, 16 of 47 or 48 in Classes C-1 and C-2 and 32 of 53 or 54 in the two eight-man classes. Six Man does its own thing these days, although the growth in its membership as schools shrink could mean more involvement by the NSAA.
As I sat down to revisit the past 40 years of November magic, I found it fascinating to relive the more than 125 finals I’ve covered in my career since 1981.
We’ll work our way to Class A:
Wolbach 62, Prague 47, 1995. Kyle Grossart accounted for all of Wolbach’s points, starting with his six touchdown passes. He ran for 165 yards and the other three touchdowns. He was 4 of 5 on drop-kick extra points, worth 2 points each in six-man.
Runner-up: Milligan 35, Benedict 28, 1998. The last NSAA-sanctioned final also was the closest.
Sargent 21, Howells 18, 2011. Sargent intercepted Howells on the Bobcats’ final two possessions for a win that closed the football history at each school. Jed Fenske, who barely played in the previous year’s 46-7 blowout loss to Howells, scored on runs of 14 and 17 yards and on a 22-yard pass from brother Guy Fenske. Sargent won for the first time in four finals appearances. It was the first loss for Howells in 10 games at Memorial Stadium.
Runner-up: Dodge 28, North Loup-Scotia 26, 1997. Phil Ruskamp stopped Casey Hughes, who had scored his third touchdown of the second half, on a 2-point try to preserve the Pirates’ fourth consecutive state title.
Mullen 44, Kenesaw 34, 1990. Wade Edis finished Mullen’s home win with a 62-yard TD run to end with 339 yards and three touchdowns on 48 carries. Matthew Rogers made a goal-line interception of Jeff Nienhueser’s pass with 41 seconds left and Mullen clinging to a 38-34 lead. Nienhueser had thrown for an Eight Man-1 playoff record 303 yards and a record-tying five touchdowns.
Runner-up: Beemer 35, Dawson-Verdon 28, two overtimes, 1977. Beemer’s Dale Holtz scored on fourth down in the second overtime and it stopped host Dawson-Verdon at the 3.
Grant 37, Yutan 36, 1985. On a 6-degree night, Grant drove 86 yards to score with 4:20 left over visiting Yutan for its fifth playoff title in 11 years. Grant was 3-3 before coach Al Gaston abandoned the wing-T and went back to the wishbone.
Runner-up: Bloomfield 21, Cambridge 20, 1992. With 54 seconds left, Craig Walling scored on an 8-yard pass from quarterback Mike Johnson and Curtis Mackeprang kicked the winning extra point. The Bees, runners-up the previous two years, were undefeated for the first time since 1937.
Auburn 28, Valentine 27, two overtimes, 2007. Auburn kicker Trent Jones made both of his extra points in overtime, including the game-winner. The Badgers’ Adam Dredge, who hit the left upright with a 44-yard field-goal try in the final regulation, hit it again after his team had scored first in the second extra period. Auburn’s Dana Mellage, who threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Troy Williams to salvage the Bulldogs’ first OT possession, threw 10 yards to Drew Tanner in the second OT to tie it at 27-27 and bring out Jones.
Runner-up: David City Aquinas 29, Battle Creek 28, two overtimes, 1994. Aquinas successfully defended its title as Chris Shipley stopped Tom Uhlir short on Battle Creek’s 2-point conversion attempt in the second overtime. Jay Pelan made a 2-point conversion to get the game to a second extra period.
Honorable mention: Norfolk Catholic 26, Boone Central 13, 2004. Tyler Sudbeck’s 21-yard pass to Tyler Wenzl with 5 seconds left broke a 13-13 tie, then Norfolk Catholic tacked on a gift touchdown — Jamie Beckman’s fumble recovery in the end zone on the ensuing kickoff.
Omaha Skutt 6, McCook 0, 2005. Ryan Patera and Steven Marsicek were a roadblock who preserved the win for Skutt’s first state title. They forced McCook quarterback Tony Purvis out of bounds at the SkyHawks 2 on the last play. The game’s only score came on its first series, with Skutt taking 17 plays to go 80 yards before Casey Carbullido scored from the 2.
Runner-up: Elkhorn 19, Crete 14, 1996. Kyle Ringenberg scored on an 8-yard slotback reverse for the go-ahead touchdown, then got the stop with a tackle for loss on fourth-and-5 from his 20 before Elkhorn ran out the final 4:36.
Honorable mention: Norris 20, Plattsmouth 19, 1979. Lennie Hoover’s 6-yard pass to Craig Prange and Kenten Oltman’s extra point with 27 seconds left in the third quarter wiped out Plattsmouth’s 19-13 lead at Seacrest Field in Lincoln.
Millard South 28, Papillion-La Vista 24, 1995. In the last Class A final played on a home field, Josh Miller scored from the 4 with 1:19 left to lift Millard South past the host Monarchs before a crowd of 6,500 at the old Papio field. Papio had won in the regular season 45-14.
Runner-up: Lincoln Southeast 14, Omaha Creighton Prep 7, two overtimes, 2000. Still Class A’s only final to go to overtime, Prep blocked Southeast’s field-goal attempt in the first overtime, then Southeast took the victory and its seventh playoff championship on sophomore quarterback Nick Bahe’s 7-yard touchdown run and junior Alex Gordon’s interception on the very next play.
Honorable mention: Millard North 17, Omaha North 14, 2013. Neither team played well on offense until the final quarter. Isaac Aakre’s pass to Clay Fisher was for the go-ahead touchdown. The Vikings got to the Millard North 15, aided by a pass-interference penalty, with 35 seconds left, but threw three consecutive incompletions with Aakre in the game as an extra DB and a 35-yard field-goal try was wide left.
Video: State championship football predictions
Watch the clip below as World-Herald staff writer Stu Pospisil makes his final predictions for the Nebraska prep football championships.
Here’s some of the top performances from the playoff era:
1985 Class A final, Omaha Creighton Prep 45, Papillion-La Vista 7: The artificial turf at Caniglia Field turned from green to white by game’s end on a damp, cold night but the Junior Jays skated to a blowout that finished a 12-0 season. George Achola ran for 149 yards and scored two of his three touchdowns in a 31-point first half. I consider this Prep team to be the best in state history.
1994 Class C-2 final, Cambridge 73, Laurel-Concord 28: Ed Thompson was 11 of 11 passing and 10 of 10 in scoring drives as Cambridge took leads of 55-0 at halftime and 73-6 at Laurel. The future UNO standout threw for 193 yards and four touchdowns and ran for two. The Trojans’ seniors went 49-1 in their careers.
— Omaha Skutt quarterback Isaiah Ramsey, 2014
2014 Class A final, Omaha North 41, Prep 0: Start with Calvin Strong, who finished his remarkable high school career by rushing for 286 yards — only 14 off what he had predicted in a pregame tweet — and three touchdowns. The Vikings’ defense let Prep get to the North 20 once and it resulted in a missed a field goal. North had six sacks and gave up 128 yards.
2014 Class C-1 final, Boone Central/Newman Grove 54, Ashland-Greenwood 14: Wyatt Mazour secured his spot as the All-Nebraska quarterback by accounting for six touchdowns. He converted Boone’s first four possessions into touchdowns on only 14 plays. He started with two touchdown passes, then scored on runs of 65 and 35 yards for a 28-7 lead with 9:35 left in the first half.
2003 Class A final, Millard North 38, Prep 7: The Mustangs claimed their first state championship as Jon Kimbrough ran for four touchdowns and 203 yards — his third 200-yard game in the four-game playoff series — and Keith Lloyd had 123 to back Robbie Knight, the Mustangs’ third starting quarterback of the season who intercepted three passes in the blowout.
1981 Class B final, Grand Island Northwest 55, Aurora 0: Mike Reuss ran for 278 yards and four touchdowns on 14 carries for Northwest, which captured the school’s first sports championship. It outscored its three playoff foes 132-13 while Aurora had ousted No. 1 Waverly and No. 2 Falls City to reach its first final.
Todd Uhlir and Battle Creek, 1992: After Uhlir stole the show in the Class C-1 semifinals from Scott Frost with five touchdowns, 310 yards and 38 points in a 67-28 win over Wood River, his encore in the state final — a 50-14 win over Aquinas — was six touchdowns and 373 yards as the Braves took a place among the small-school elite of all-time.
From a prep rater’s standpoint the playoffs made life easier, except for the rare times — none since 1983 — when Conde Sargent and then Larry Porter chose a ratings champion that wasn’t the playoff winner. When Porter took over in 1976 for Sargent, who left for a job at the NSAA, he ranked only one of the six champions in those four-team playoffs at No. 1 — Tekamah in Class C-1. For years, Porter kept in his Lincoln desk the World-Herald certificate returned by Class B playoff winner Schuyler — ranked second in 1976 behind non-qualifier Gordon — with an accompanying letter from coach Gene Hunting. Later at Cozad, Hunting’s 1991 team won Class B — playoffs and ratings title, too.
The most well-known ratings flap for football was in 1983 when Porter placed Omaha Roncalli, a 5-4 team that had gone 2-4 against Class A, ahead of Class B playoff champion Platteview (11-2) for No. 1. I would have done the same thing, given that Roncalli played Class A champion Prep to 21-12 while one of Platteview’s losses was in overtime to a 5-5 Fremont Bergan team in Class C-1.
Playoff lowlights fortunately have been few. The only on-field fights I can recall were when emotions ran high in Creighton Prep’s 25-0 Class A semifinal win over Omaha Central in 1989. There were 9,000 witnesses as the teams scuffled twice in the first half.
“It was a non-classy game,’’ Central coach William Reed said.
A highly disputed call was in the 2002 Class A final, when it was ruled Millard North quarterback John McCardle got only one of the two yards he needed on fourth down from the Lincoln Southeast 10 with 1:13 left, leading to a 7-6 Knights win.
Bellevue East picked up an unexpected cheering section in 1991 when it visited Gering in the Class A first round — a group of Scottsbluff students. Such is the rivalry between the Panhandle schools.
Fireworks exploded after every Dodge touchdown — at Overton’s field, with 2,500 watching — as the Pirates beat the hosts 54-33 in 1994. That practice has since been banned by the NSAA.
At Wynot, teams do play uphill and downhill. The Blue Devils’ field is on the village’s baseball diamond, and the south end zone is considerably higher than the north end zone that’s closer to the nearby Missouri River.
Weather highs — and many lows
Usually the shorts are packed away by playoff time, but I’ve worn them a few times through the years on unseasonably warm playoff days — most recently at Falls City Sacred Heart’s second-round home game with Randolph. One of the warmest days was in Cambridge in 2004, when several Hemingford starters were affected by the 80-degree heat yet eliminated the defending C-2 champion 33-32 in the first round.
One of the coldest nights was in 1992. Ryly Jane Hambleton from the Lincoln Journal Star and I had traveled together to cover Lincoln Southeast’s first-round afternoon game at Alliance, in an area where several inches of snow had fallen the night before. Not wanting to sit idle when we could see another game, we went south on U.S. 385 to Dalton for Leyton’s night game with Wauneta-Palisade. The temperature dipped so far below zero that we charted the game stats sitting in a warm car parked on a rise overlooking the field. No, we didn’t honk when either team scored.
Perhaps the snowiest game I’ve covered was Ogallala’s 14-0 home win over Seward in the 1998 Class B quarterfinals. It was like a snow globe in the first half and there was an inch or two covering the muddy field by game’s end.
There’s been scraping of frost off press box windows at Grand Island, traipsing along the sidelines of other snowy fields and plenty of hot chocolate. And only one calamity along the road, last year when the transmission on my SUV went out on a return trip from McCook on a snowy Saturday.
Firsts in finals
First champions, in 1975: Class A, Lincoln East; Class B, Lincoln Pius X; Class C-1, Plainview; Class C-2, Grant; Class D (11-man), Nelson; Eight Man, Adams.
First Eight Man-2 champion: Arthur County, defeated Hildreth 32-20 in 1979.
First Six Man champion: Guide Rock, defeated Farnam 62-19 in 1987.
First back-to-back champion: Lincoln Southeast, 1976 and 1977, Class A.
First back-to-back Class B champion: Lincoln Pius X, 1997-98.
First to three-peat: Grant, 1978 to 1980, Class C-2.
First to win four in a row: Omaha Creighton Prep, 1985 to 1988, Class A.
First to win five in a row: Prep, 1985 to 1989, Class A.
First to win six in a row: Falls City Sacred Heart, 1989 to 1994, Eight Man-2.
First champions at Memorial Stadium, in 1996: Class A, Papillion-La Vista; Class B, Elkhorn; Class C-1, Milford; Class C-2, Cambridge; Eight Man-1, Dodge; Eight Man-2, Humphrey St. Francis; Six Man, Wolbach.
First coach to take two Class A schools to titles: Dan McLaughlin, Norfolk 1994, Millard West 2001.
First overtime final: Wheatland 38, Hampton 32, 1976 Eight Man.
First Class A overtime final: Lincoln Southeast 14, Omaha Creighton Prep 7, 2000.
First televised final: 1988 Class A final, Omaha Creighton Prep 24, Lincoln Southeast 21.
First final to end on 45-point mercy rule: Benedict 65, Elba 16, 1997 Six Man.
First 11-man game in running-clock timing: Cozad 47, Ashland-Greenwood 21, 2013 Class C-1.
Nothing but nothing
Only two teams have not allowed a point in the playoffs during a title season, and both happened in 1982. Omaha Westside beat Kearney 35-0, Omaha Creighton Prep 35-0 and Lincoln Northeast in the finals 34-0 in Class A. Elkhorn Mount Michael beat McCook 23-0, Lincoln Pius X 28-0 and O’Neill in the finals 38-0 in Class B.
Stadium doors unlocked
No high school game had been played at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln since 1947 until 1991, following the Halloween snowstorm, when Omaha Westside beat Alliance before Papillion-La Vista beat Columbus in first-round games.
Look, I’m on HuskerVision
The video boards were one of the reasons for using Memorial Stadium, and players have used them to their advantage.
For Milford quarterback Kyle Hingst, HuskerVision aided him in scoring the winning touchdown against Battle Creek in the first Class C-1 final there in 1996. Hingst scored on an 83-yard run to put Milford ahead 14-6 in the final minute of a game it won 14-12.
“After the game I asked him whether he looked back,” said Milford coach Marty Hingst, the quarterback’s father. “He said, ‘I looked up at HuskerVision and could see where everyone was.’”
Nine years later, Howells quarterback Bryon Janata knew while on a 53-yard run he wasn’t going to score. “Back in Howells you don’t get the HuskerVision screen,” Janata said. “As I was running, I glanced up and it was like, ‘He’s going to catch me.’ He runs the 400 and I run the 110 hurdles.”
What are your recollections of state finals? Maybe a behind-the-scenes moment as a player or coach or parent.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put “Playoff memories” in the subject field.
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