Grand Island Senior High needed to force a fifth turnover to secure a 35-27 victory over Bellevue West in the first round of the Class A playoffs Friday.
Trevor Wojtalewicz picked off a pass in the end zone with eight seconds left to help the No. 10 Islanders top the No. 7 Thunderbirds despite being outgained 476 yards to 260.
“Defensively, we just played hard,” Grand Island coach Jeff Tomlin said. “That’s a top-notch offense with a lot of weapons. They just kept slugging away, and we got five turnovers. That’s huge.
“We bought some time for our offense, and our offense responded in the second half.”
Bellevue West (6-4) conceded a 16-yard touchdown run by Andrew Rojas with 1:08 remaining to let the Islanders (9-1) take a 35-27 lead.
“That was our only chance with that amount of time,” Thunderbirds coach Michael Huffman said. “We only had one timeout left, so we told our kids to pursue so the kid wouldn’t just stop and run the clock out. But we let them go because we can throw it pretty well.
“We thought we’d be able to get down there. We had a guy in the end zone, and their kid did a great job recovering and made a great play.”
That great play came from Wojtalewicz, who picked off Brad Brazeal after he had driven Bellevue West from its own 20-yard line to the Islanders’ 22 in seven plays.
“(Receiver Malik Hluchoweckyj) was their go-to guy, and he was scrambling around,” Wojtalewicz said. “I saw him kind of cross and I thought I just had to get in front of him. It was basically a jump ball. I had to go up and get it. When I had it, my teammates crowded me. It was the best feeling in the world.”
Hluchoweckyj finished with 12 catches for 156 yards, while Brazeal completed 29 of 46 passes for 359 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions.
Special teams on both sides played a huge part in the game. The Islanders got a 70-yard kickoff return for a touchdown from Rojas after the Thunderbirds scored the first touchdown of the game in the first half.
Grand Island also recovered an onside kick after going up 14-7 in the second.
Bellevue West came up just short of turning a special teams miscue into a huge play.
After Cole Patterson’s 19-yard touchdown reception brought the Thunderbirds within 28-27 with 3:49 left in the game, a short snap prevented a try at a PAT kick.
Instead holder Brennan Cascio scrambled to his left, but he was tackled just six inches short of giving Bellevue West its first lead since the first quarter.
“That’s been the story of our season,” Huffman said. “We lost 50-49 to Millard North and missed three PATs. We lost last week 38-37 to (Omaha) Burke and missed a PAT.
“We’ve got a great team. We practice those things every day. But it just didn’t work out for us.”
Tomlin said special teams made a big difference.
“Our special teams probably outplayed theirs,” he said. “We got the big play on their botched snap in a game of inches. We had the big kickoff return for a touchdown. I think our special teams were solid.”
Grand Island only managed two first downs and 77 yards of offense in the first half, but still led 14-7 at halftime.
That was due to Rojas’ return on a short kick into the wind and a 47-yard reverse pass from Wojtalewicz to Seth Roberg with 7:52 left in the second quarter.
“I’ve been asking, and I got my shot last week and just missed it,” said Wojtalewicz, the Islanders’ leading receiver who is also the backup quarterback. “They threw (the play) back in there. I made sure I didn’t miss it this time.”
Bellevue West amassed 213 yards of offense in the first half but also turned the ball over four times plus lost the onside kick. “The first half we had success moving the football, but we had some crucial turnovers,” Huffman said. “We got down there inside the 15 and fumbled the ball. Then right before half we had a couple nice plays and got down to the 6-yard line and they get a great interception.
“Their kids did a good job. They swarm to the ball. When we put it on the carpet or tipped it up in the air, they were there to catch it.”
Grand Island’s offense started driving the ball right away in the second half and took the opening possession 73 yards in 11 plays. Rojas scored from 11 yards out for the second of his three TDs.
“We made a couple slight adjustments at halftime, but more it was a mindset adjustment,” Tomlin said. “Our offensive line just did a great job. I’m proud of them and how they responded. We got beat around a little bit at times in the first half, and we put our defense in some precarious situations.
“We had to punt more than we punted all year, I think, just in that first half.”
Bellevue West tied it up at 21 with two touchdowns in a span of 3:06. Brazeal scored on a 4-yard run on fourth down and then completed a 5-yard TD pass to Hluchoweckyj.
“I didn’t think we dropped our heads,” Tomlin said. “I thought we kept slugging. We kept in it mentally. We kept responding offensively. I think there was a lot of character shown out there.”
Grand Island retook the lead 28-21 when Pierce Almond found a wide-open Ben Witkowski in the back of the end zone for a 16-yard score with 6:27 left in the fourth.
Witkowski had two catches in the game, which matched his season total after he missed the first five games with a broken collarbone.
“Being out for half the season and coming back in from a broken collar bone, it felt good to get those catches and get up the field and get the team moving,” the senior split end said.
“I was supposed to be a fade (on the touchdown). I was out to the end of the end zone and started breaking it out because I knew our quarterback was rolling outside. I just sat there, and he threw a perfect ball to me. I just had to catch it.”
Grand Island advances to play at No. 4 Omaha Burke next Friday. The Bulldogs defeated Lincoln Southeast 24-3.