OMAHA — Cheers and overall jubilation could be heard and seen from the migrating Grand Island Senior High faithful as they exited Bellevue West High School Friday night.
Yes, the Islander football team won another hard-fought Class A playoff battle. This time a trip to the state title game was the team’s prize.
And the Islanders (10-2) will play for the Class A title Nov. 19 at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln against Omaha Burke (12-0).
There was no dramatic comeback needed like in previous weeks with Grand Island getting the 37-30 win over Bellevue West (10-2). In fact, Grand Island never trailed the Thunderbirds.
“Our kids came out ready to play,” Grand Island head coach Jeff Tomlin said. “I thought our offensive line established itself right off the bat and our running backs always run hard. We knew what a great offense (Bellevue West) has. They have an outstanding team.”
With the ball, a touchdown lead and four minutes on the clock, the Islanders were able to convert three third downs on their final possession to run down the clock.
Quarterback Cole Evans completed passes to Caleb Francl and Broc Douglass over the middle for two of the key conversions. Timo Sikes got another on the ground as Grand Island advanced to its first state title game since 1990.
“We trusted our guys up front,” Evans said of the final drive. “We’ve trusted them all year. We can get a push on anybody. All we needed was a few first downs and they did their job.”
While a wild rally was not necessary this week, some trickery helped Grand Island over the top once again. A week after pulling off a bounce pass that ended in a 70-yard touchdown a the Islanders faked a field goal on the final play of the first half.
Evans, who lined up as the holder, sprung up for a pass and found Francl over the top for a 16-yard touchdown reception. The successful fake put the Thunderbirds down 27-19 at halftime.
Before the fake, Bellevue West blocked Keyin Wentling’s legitimate field goal attempt, but Thunderbirds head coach Mike Huffman got a timeout in before the snap. The Islanders lined up again and this time threw it to the end zone.
Tomlin said the coaching staff had their eye on a fake due to the way the Thunderbirds were lined up, adding he would have called a timeout to change personnel but feared that would give away the play.
Sure enough, the Islanders got to line up how they wanted anyway.
“As fate would have it, the situation happened where we could run him in,” Tomlin said.
Huffman said he regretted calling timeout.
“We know Grand Island is known for trickeration. Everybody knows that, right?” he said. “(Evans) stood up and threw an absolute dime. That kid was a superstar tonight.”
After a back-and-forth first half, the Grand Island defense settled in, forcing two second-half turnovers. Bellevue West managed just one second-half touchdown. It came after the Islanders put the ball on the ground on the first play of the second half to set up the Thunderbirds with a short field.
Senior defensive back Kodjo Atikpohou intercepted Bellevue West standout quarterback Evan Kieser while Francl recovered a fumble from Kieser.
Francl’s fumble recovery came in the fourth quarter and set up a drive that was capped by a 22-yard field goal from Wentling.
The kick put the Islanders up two possessions
“We thought it was going to be a one-possession game, and it really it was,” Huffman said. “I thought it was going to be like in the first half but the way the defenses came in, they did a good job.”
Ace McKinnis also registered an interception in the first half that set up an Islander scoring drive. Sam Sims led the defense with 12 tackles.
“Our think our defense is very good. When you run up against a team of this caliber, you’re going to give up some yards and points,” Tomlin said. “It all comes down to stops. We just got one or two more stops than they got and got a couple big picks. I’m very proud of our (defensive backs) getting a couple big picks. Very proud of our defense.”
John Reilly led the Islanders with 92 rushing yards while Francl added 90. Evans finished 21 of 34 for 222 yards and no interceptions.
Jay Ducker had 188 yards on 27 carries for Bellevue West.
Entering the game, it was important to Grand Island to get off to a fast start after falling behind the last two weeks. This time out the Islanders scored two first-quarter touchdowns to keep the Thunderbirds playing from behind.
“We established our running game early and never went too far away from it. The guys up front played awesome all night,” Evans said.
When asked about what a trip to the title game means, Evans instantly mentioned his coach.
“Everything goes to Coach T. That man has worked so hard and develops us as leaders and as players,” he said. “It just feels good to get him to a championship game and a chance to win it all.”
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