Memorial Stadium hosted the first day of NSAA State Football Championships on Monday.
Monday featured the Class D2, Class D1 and Class A title games,
No. 2 Hitchcock County (13-0) 22, No. 1 Howells-Dodge 12 (12-1)
Hitchcock County ended Howells-Dodge’s quest for a second straight state title and captured its first championship as the Falcons grabbed the lead early in the second half and shut the Jaguars out the rest of the way in the first game of the day.
Leading 16-12 in the fourth quarter, the Hitchcock County defense forced a turnover on downs at the Howells-Dodge 27-yard line with 5:44 to play. The offense picked it up from there, putting together an 11-play, 27-yard drive that chewed up 4:46 of game time before a dagger touchdown with 58 seconds to play.
Howells-Dodge had two opportunities to get the ball back. First, Hitchcock County faced a fourth-and-3 at the 8-yard line with 2:28 to play. Senior quarterback Keynan Gaston kept it himself, picking up 4 yards before senior Jestin Bayer popped the ball free. Senior Trent Kisker was the first to the ball, however, securing it for the Falcons along with a new set of downs at the 4-yard line.
Gaston picked up 3 yards down to the 1 on his first carry, but the Jaguars stuffed him for no gain on the next two plays, setting up a fourth-and-goal from the 1. Instead of trying to pound it up the middle again, Gaston pitched the ball to senior Drew Scott and he powered through one defender to dive for the pylon to score the dagger touchdown.
Gaston led the Falcons with 99 yards on 25 carries and a touchdown, he completed on of his three passes for a 45-yard touchdown and he added 10 tackles including half a tackle for loss on defense. Scott added 11 tackles and a pass break-up to his touchdown run.
Howells-Dodge star senior Lance Brester capped his fantastic career with another big game, finishing with 172 yards and a touchdown on 34 carries, three catches for 32 yards and 14 tackles (0.5 for loss). Bayer scored the Jaguars’ other touchdown and recorded a game-high 18 tackles (2.5 for loss) and two forced fumbles.
Hitchcock County got off to a great start, forcing a punt on the opening drive then following it up with a touchdown drive of its own plus a two-point conversion.
The Jaguars fired back with back-to-back touchdown drives, though they couldn’t convert their extra-point opportunities. The Hitchcock County defense dominated the rest of the way, however, pitching a shutout over the last two-and-a-half quarters. Gaston gave the Falcons the lead with a 45-yard touchdown pass to Kisker on the first drive of the second half and Scott added the insurance score in the fourth to close it out.
No. 7 Clarkson/Leigh 48, No. 5 Neligh-Oakdale 20
Neligh-Oakdale quarterback Aiden Kuester has been an unstoppable force all season long — and throughout his career. He recently broke the national career yardage record (he’s over 12,000 in his four years of varsity football) and posted a stat line unlike anything I’d ever seen in the Warriors’ semifinal win over top-seeded North Platte St. Patrick’s.
However, it was Clarkson/Leigh senior Kyle Kasik who dominated on Monday afternoon to carry the Patriots to their first state title.
The five-foot-10, 180-pound running back ran the ball 45 times for 320 yards and six touchdowns and converted six two-point conversions on offense. On defense, he was second on the team with eight tackles (2.5 for loss) and also had an interception and a pass break-up. Kasik’s 48 points ties the Class D1 single-game playoff record. He surpassed 2,000 rushing yards for the season in the championship.
Four other Patriots touched the ball on offense, totaling 46 yards on 18 carries, meaning Kasik accounted for 87.4% of the team’s offense and 100% of its points.
Early on it looked like Kuester was going to cap his prolific career with a state title as the Warriors jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter.
However, the Clarkson/Leigh offensive line and Kasik had other plans as the Patriots found the end zone on five of their next six possessions, scoring 40 unanswered.
The Warriors finally ended the run with a nine-play, 73-yard touchdown drive ending in a 1-yard plunge by Kuester, but Kasik answered four plays later with a 36-yard touchdown run to put a cherry on top of the win.
Kuester went 10-for-19 passing for 107 yards and two interceptions with 111 yards and two touchdowns on 21 rushes and a game-high 21 tackles (one for loss). Junior Bryson Gadeken was on of four Warriors who finished with 13 tackles while adding 40 yards and a touchdown on four carries plus 82 yards on five receptions.
Kuester finishes his career with 12,249 total yards (7,971 passing, 4,278 rushing), 181 total touchdowns (88 passing, 93 rushing), 708 total points and 497 total tackles including 62 for loss).
No. 1 Omaha Westside 43, No. 2 Gretna 41
In a showdown of two of the best quarterbacks in Class A, a kicker stole the show and booted his team to victory.
Senior Tristan Alvano nailed a 45-yard field goal as time expired to lift the Warriors to victory and avenge last season’s 7-3 loss in the 2021 Class A state championship.
The winner was his fifth field goal of the day as he also connected from 44, 50, 26 and 42, breaking the all-class single-game playoff record previously held by North Bend’s Joe Wesch with four. Alvano nailed all four of his extra-point attempts as well.
The quarterbacks certainly showed out too, however. Junior Anthony Rezac had less than two minutes to get Westside into field goal range and did just that, orchestrating a nine-play, 40-yard drive to set up Alvano’s game-winner.
Before that, Gretna senior and Oklahoma State commit Zane Flores led two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter to dig the Dragons out of a 13-point hole. The second drive took just three plays and 37 seconds as Flores delivered a strike down the field to Blayke Moore while taking a hit for a 54-yard gain, setting up a 14-yard go-ahead touchdown run for Isaiah Weber, which put the pressure back on the Warriors.
Rezac finished 27-of-36 passing for 337 yards and two touchdowns and led all rushers with 84 yards and another touchdown on 24 carries.
Flores went 23-for-37 for 414 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions and added 52 yards and another score on the ground.
Junior Caleb Benning returned from the collarbone injury that had sidelined him since Westside’s week-three win against Bellevue West and made his presence felt early and often with 14 receptions for 103 yards (including two 9-yard gains on the final drive), two interceptions and one pass break-up. Benning’s return meant even more because Westside had to play without leading receiver Jaylen Lloyd, who suffered an injury in the semifinals.
Gretna had two receivers top 100 yards in Moore (five catches for 153 yards and a touchdown) and Tyson Boganowski (four catches for 100 yards and a touchdown).
The first quarter lasted 40 minutes of real time and featured 42 points and 374 total yards.
Westside scored on its first five drives — four touchdowns and a 44-yard field goal — to take a 31-14 lead early in the second quarter. Flores had touchdown passes of 52 yards to Boganowski and 80 yards to Moore, but Benning also picked him off twice which allowed the Warriors to create the separation.
The offenses finally slowed down in the second quarter as the teams traded extended drives that ended in punts. Gretna got the ball back with 2:15 to go in the half and Flores marched the Dragons right down the field, eventually hitting Ethan Stuhr on a well-designed play for a 3-yard touchdown to make it 31-21 with 28 seconds to go.
Westside took that 10-point lead into halftime after kneeling out the clock. Both quarterbacks threw for more than 200 yards and score three total touchdowns, but the two Westside takeaways resulted in the 10-points that made the difference.
Gretna opened the second half with a turnover on downs and Westside turns that into three more points with an Alvano field goal midway through the period. Flores answered with another touchdown drive that included a 56-yard bomb to Michael Scheef, but Westside senior Dawson Hardick blocked the extra point to keep it a seven-point game heading into the fourth quarter, which proved to be key with how the game finished.
Westside added two more field goals in the fourth to build the lead back to 13 before Gretna began its comeback.
Sophomore linebacker Christian Jones, a Nebraska target, led Westside with eight tackles, a pass break-up and half a sack.
Senior Korver Demma, a Nebraska preferred walk-on commit, had seven tackles (one for loss) while fellow senior Mason Goldman, who holds a Nebraska scholarship offer, added nine tackles including 1.5 for loss. That duo, together with senior defensive tackle Harrison Weber (2.5 tackles for loss) spent much of the night in the Westside backfield, but Rezac kept his composure, extended plays and made some big-time throws to lead Westside to its fourth state title.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.