KEARNEY — When Gothenburg won the coin toss and took the ball, Kearney Catholic head coach Rashawn Harvey knew what that meant. “Gothenburg never does that so that was the signal right there,” he said. “They wanted to see if we could stop the run.”
That answer was a resounding yes on Friday night. Kearney Catholic, behind its defense, moved to 2-0 on the young season with a 35-0 win over the Swedes.
The proof has been in the pudding in recent years, Harvey says. The Stars have been a team opposing offenses can run on. Star quarterback Heinrich Haarberg told me last week a team can have a dynamic offense in the absence of a strong defense, but if the other side of the ball is struggling, a team can never have a great offense. In years past, Kearney Catholic has struggled to keep teams from ball-controlling them to death.
A switch this offseason from the 4-4/4-3 mix the Stars were running to the 3-4 they’re running now put the emphasis on the linebacking corps of standout seniors Cale Conrad, Logan O’Brien, Tate Florell, and Aaron O’Brien.
“Since we have a lot of speed on the outside and our linebackers have a lot of speed, (the coaches) tweaked that so we can get our skill guys just flowing to the ball better,” junior safety/wideout Brett Mahony said. “We don’t have to think as much on our assignment, it’s pretty much just flow to the ball and play hard.”
“Our linebackers out there are high-energy guys,” Harvey added. “We bring ‘em from any and everywhere, especially our outside linebackers, and our d-line does a great job of protecting them, which frees them up to run around and make plays.”
Make plays they did.
Gothenburg wanted to test the defense that gave up just one scoring play a week ago against Wood River-Shelton in a 65-6 season-opening rout. Was it legit? Or were the Silverbacks just overmatched? The Stars produced two takeaways and didn’t yield much of anything until the game reached garbage time.
Careful what you wish for.
On the third play of the game (and for the second week in a row on the defense’s opening drive) Kearney Catholic’s defense took the ball away. A fumble forced and then recovered by Mahony set Haarberg and company up 31 yards away from paydirt.
Five plays later, Conrad (also the team’s starting tailback) punched it in for six points to open the scoring. Haarberg, one play earlier on fourth-and-1, pulled the ball on a read-option and took off for 20 yards, all the way down to just shy of the goalline.
It wasn’t a standout performance for Haarberg, he was held without a score on a night that saw him go 9-for-21 for 99 yards through the air. Though he added 56 yards rushing and came up with timely big throws. Drops were an issue, and a pair of questionable offensive pass interference calls on back-to-back fade balls to Mahony in the back of the end zone twice negated touchdown tosses. First from the 2, Haarberg placed the ball perfectly where only Mahony could bring it down, and then again from the 17.
But Kearney Catholic didn’t need Haarberg to be star-caliber, Division I-bound Haarberg. Conrad ran for 133 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Haarberg didn’t turn the ball over, a second straight week of clean football. The roles reversed, against Gothenburg he played the Robin to his defense’s Batman.
“We read all these articles about how great Heinrich is and it definitely makes us want to work to prove we’ve got a good team, too,” Mahony said.
The defense produced three takeaways, two of them interceptions. Gothenburg called just eight pass plays all night.
After playing only a half of football a week ago, Harvey kept his starters in until the Swede’s final drive. To that point, the Stars defense yielded just 31 yards. Gothenburg finished with 79, but at a paltry 1.8 yards per play rate.
The defense forced fumbles left and right. A snap sailed over Gothenburg’s punter’s head in the second half and out of the back of the end zone for a safety.
A scramble from the Swedes’ quarterback in the third quarter ended in a pick-six for Mahony. The Stars were in man, Mahony stuck with his guy and then broke on the ball perfectly, and capped the play by running over Gothenburg’s tailback at the goal line.
Gothenburg was unable to do much of anything for the vast majority of the evening.
“The coaches have put in a great gameplan,” Mahony said. “They get on us hard during practice, during our team d kind of stuff. I’d give all the glory to the coaches because they’ve had some nice blitz packages for linebackers and gap alignments. I’d say that’s key to our success. And everyone’s just flowing to the ball.”
The PA announcer introduced the team ahead of the game as the “No. 3 team in the state.” Kearney Catholic looks dangerous, not just because of its dynamic quarterback or its bruising running back.
The other side of the ball looks like it can do just as much damage.
“I feel ecstatic about our defense,” Harvey said. “That’s one of the points of emphasis for this season, improve our defense and our ability to stop the run because people are going to come at us with that. They think our achilles heel is—and it’s been proven and shown, you can look at the data—that we’ve had trouble stopping the run. So if each game we can get better with that, it’s going to help us. If we are fortunate enough to get in the playoffs, it’s gonna prepare us for all those situations.
“Tonight was the night we needed to rely on our defense. We struggled at times putting the ball in the air and catching it. We were pretty good at running the ball, but we needed our defense and they came through.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.