The improvement Grand Island Senior High has made in the stretch run of the season was on full display Friday night as the Islanders beat Lincoln Pius X 36-0 in the opening round of the Class A state football playoffs at Memorial Stadium.
The Islanders, who improved to 4-4 on the season, were dominant on both sides of the ball while posting their first shutout of the season. Grand Island had defeated the Thunderbolts 24-7 back on Sept. 4 on the same field, but coach Jeff Tomlin’s team appeared to have widened the gap since the two squads’ previous meeting.
“Our kids have just gotten steadily better and better,” said Tomlin, whose team has won three of its last four contests. “We have taken our knocks, but our guys just kept coming back and now we’re playing the type of football that I thought this bunch could play. I’m just really, really proud of their improvement.”
Grand Island put forth its best defensive performance of the season, limiting Pius to 70 total yards and four first downs on 39 offensive snaps. The Thunderbolts managed just 35 yards rushing on 24 attempts, while Brandon Fox, Joshua Reynoso and Jace Chrisman all recorded interceptions and Michael Maxon had a team-high 10 total tackles for the Islanders.
Pius’ best scoring opportunity came when Bryce Wemhoff’s 25-yard interception return gave the Thunderbolts possession at the Grand Island 25-yard line with 8:55 left in the first quarter. However, the Islanders’ defense stiffened and Pius was turned away when a 39-yard field-goal attempt was blocked.
“We started out this season kind of young and inexperienced, but we’re starting to play Islanders’ defense,” Grand Island senior nose guard Daylon Keolavone said. “It was just a matter of everyone getting more reps and coming together as brothers.
“Tonight, we came out with a little different game plan and it worked well. Coach T obviously knows what he’s doing.”
Grand Island’s offense came to life in the second quarter as junior quarterback Kytan Fyfe had touchdown runs of 13 and 8 yards to put his team ahead 14-0. Heider Alba Meda’s 20-yard field goal with 1:03 left before the intermission gave the Islanders a 17-0 halftime lead.
GISH scored on its first three possessions of the third quarter to put the game away. Chrisman had a 7-yard TD and Keolavone added an 8-yard scoring run before wide receiver Brandon Fox hauled in a 24-yard TD pass from Fyfe to trigger the running clock via the 35-point rule with 2:20 remaining in the third quarter.
“We have shown some pretty good balance and Kytan is starting to run the option well and he’s a threat to keep the ball and throw it,” Tomlin said. “Our kids did a good job, offensively. We had one key turnover early, but then we did a fairly good job of taking care of the ball after that.”
Fyfe completed 8 of 16 pass attempts for 119 yards and a TD and also rushed seven times for 50 yards and two scores. Grand Island finished with 254 yards rushing on 42 attempts, led by senior Beau Walker’s 92 yards on 10 tries and Keolavone’s 72 yards on 12 totes.
Tomlin said he was especially proud of Walker, who stepped up to take extra carries when injuries hit the Islanders’ backfield the past two weeks.
“Pound for pound, there’s not a tougher guy out there — that’s for sure,” Tomlin said of Walker. “Beau gets every bit out of his body that he can get. He just patiently waited for his opportunity and he’s making the most of it.”
The 5-foot-7, 140-pound Walker had 124 all-purpose yards, including a 29-yard kickoff return against the Thunderbolts.
“It feels amazing to get the opportunity,” Walker said. “Obviously, I’m not the biggest guy, so I just have to make what I can out of each play with my feet. You just have to have the mindset that no matter how big a defensive player is, you’re still going to try to run through them.”
Walker said he and his fellow seniors were determined to perform well in what could be their final home game.
“As seniors, we come out and play hard every single game, but everyone knows what’s on the line, especially now that we’ve entered the playoffs,” Walker said. “Tonight, I think we all stepped up and took it upon ourselves to make something happen.”
The Islanders advance to play at No. 1-rated Omaha Westside at 4 p.m. Friday. The Warriors (8-0) beat Grand Island 42-0 back on Sept. 25 in G.I.
“Obviously, Westside will be a big test for us, but it will be a great gauge as to how much better we’ve gotten as a team,” Tomlin said. “We’ll just go compete as hard as we can and anything can happen.
“Our kids are looking forward to the opportunity and the challenge. They’re going to practice great — I know they will — and then they’ll go to Omaha and play their hearts out.”