OMAHA ï After nearly three scoreless quarters, the feeling at Grand Island Senior High's state quarterfinal playoff game with Omaha Central was that whatever team scored first would win. Omaha Central ended up being that team, holding on for a 14-7 victory to end the Islanders' season.
Facing a talent-laden, speedy offense, the Islander defense did everything right most of the night. GISH (8-3) kept the Eagles (9-2) off the board for the first 34 minutes of the game. They stopped Central on fourth down three times and made countless open-field tackles. They took away the cutback, created turnovers and kept one of the state's top running backs out of the end zone all night.
"We just wanted to play great defense," said GISH coach Jeff Tomlin. "We knew they had great receivers. Their quarterback is dangerous and (Ronnell) Grixby is a great back. We were just trying to hang in there. We traded punches with them pretty good."
On a night where most went right defensively, things went wrong late in the third quarter for GISH. An offside penalty on a fourth-down field goal attempt aided Central to a critical first down with just over two minutes left in the third quarter. On the next play, Central quarterback Chris Griffin carried from five yards out around left end to give the Eagles points on a night they were very hard to come by.
"It was an effort penalty," Tomlin said. "Our kid was trying hard, but just made a mental error. That was a big momentum shifter because if we could have held them to three there, maybe we still got an opportunity. It was a big turning point in the game because our defense worked hard to put ourselves in the position to hold them to a field goal."
Less than four minutes later, and only three plays after a Logan Almond pass got picked off in Islander territory, the Eagles scored on a two-yard touchdown run by Terrell Mayhue. Trailing 14-0 with 10:24 left in the game, the Islanders were forced to go to the air.
When Almond had time to throw, he was effective. With 3:02 remaining, he marched GISH down the field, completing five of six passing attempts and connected with Slade Bolles on a 26-yard corner route to the end zone with 41.6 seconds left. That score gave Brad Spencer a chance for an onside kick, but the ball took a favorable bounce for the Eagles, was fielded cleanly and Central downed the ball twice to run out the clock.
Both teams had a hard time getting things going offensively, and while GISH aided Central on its first touchdown, on two occasions when the Islanders weren't in position to stop Central, the Eagles dropped sure touchdown passes.
Offensively, the Islanders faced a loaded box all night, and Central controlled the line of scrimmage. GISH did not convert a first down until there was 3:32 left in the second quarter. The Islanders went three-and-out on five of 11 possessions and turned it over three times.
"We've been a running football team all year - that's our game," Tomlin said. "They took that away from us. They played great defense. They played faster than we did. Our defense fought and clawed and hung in there. But (Central) did control the line of scrimmage all night. I thought our kids fought hard to keep us within striking distance."
Central coach Jay Ball said his team's preparation was instrumental in the victory.
"Our scout team did a heck of a job this week in practice," Ball said. "Our kids came to play tonight. The turnovers were big. We were able to take advantage of one at the end and that allowed us to go up by two (touchdowns)."
"They're a good football team. My hat's off to Jeff and his guys. Grand Island's a special place in my heart. That's where my parents and family are from, and those are tough kids they have there."
Tomlin said his team had nothing to hang their heads about at the close of the season.
"I told them 'm very proud of our season, how they've battled through adversity, how hard they've worked and how much they've invested in the program," Tomlin said. "Congratulations to Omaha Central because they played a great game."
Grand Island (8-3) 0-0-0-7 - 7
Omaha Central (9-2) 0-0-7-7 - 14
OC: Griffin 5 run (Clifton Roebuck kick)
OC: Terrell Mayhue 3 run (Roebuck kick)
GISH: Bolles 26 pass (Spencer kick)
Rushing (attempts-yards): GISH, Hudiburgh 17-66, Westerby 3-5, Taylor 3-3, Lorenz 1-0, Almond 6-0. OC, Grixby 18-121, Mayhue 13-70, Tillman 7-43, Griffin 11-34, Washington 2-6, Prater 4-1.