“Nothing is impossible.”
That was the theme for the Elkhorn football team this season, given to them by Coach Mark Wortman’s daughter who has been dealing with some health problems. The Antlers let that belief carry them all the way to the Class B state championship as Elkhorn took down Aurora 42-19 on Friday night.
“It’s exciting to see her out here supporting us,” senior running back Aiden Young said. “We did it for Coach and we did it for the Elkhorn Community.”
The state title is Wortman’s sixth at Elkhorn and first since 2011. He’s in his 41st year at the school.
“This is as good as any of them, it really is,” Wortman said. “They’re all special, and then to be on the home field. When we found out we weren’t going to Lincoln, that was bad. But I’ll tell you what, then we found out we ere going to have a home game and everybody just got really excited. To be on the home field, there’s nothing like it. Obviously we didn’t have all the fans that we would have liked to have, but everybody was watching and the families were here. To be on this field, nothing could be better.”
The continued spread of COVID-19 and new restrictions in Lancaster County led to the cancellation of the state tournament finals at Memorial Stadium, where they usually take place spread across a Monday and Tuesday. Instead, the top seeds in the top six classes hosted the finals at their home fields.
“We’d all love to be in Memorial Stadium,” said Young, who will get a chance to play on the Huskers’ field in the future as a Nebraska preferred walk-on commit. “It’s a unique experience that we worked hard for. But there’s no better feeling than winning a state championship on your home field. Elkhorn knows about that and this is where we belong.”
The Huskies controlled the action throughout most of the first half, but two big plays turned what could have been a two-score deficit into a tie game at the break. Aurora out-snapped the Antlers 42 to 13 and out-gained them 236 to 101 (not including penalty yardage).
Aurora took a 13-6 lead midway through the second quarter, but Young returned the ensuing kickoff 75 yards for a touchdown to tie it up. The Huskies weren’t fazed, methodically moving the ball back down the field and into the red zone, crossing the 10-yard line down to the 8 and calling a timeout with 35 seconds left in the half.
When play resumed, Aurora ran the ball with quarterback Ethan Shaw. The Antlers stuffed the run for a gain of just 1 and knocked the ball free in the process. DJ Robinson-Long recovered the fumble and Elkhorn took a knee to run out the clock.
“That was one of the biggest plays of the game,” Wortman said. “If they go up by seven at the half, we’re struggling. That was huge.”
Other than the fumble, Shaw had a terrific first half, completing 10 of his 14 passes for 113 yards and carrying the ball himself 13 times for 64 yards and a touchdown.
Elkhorn got the ball first to open the second half and took just five plays to score as quarterback Grant Gutschow ran it in from 9 yards out. After an encroachment call on the extra point, Elkhorn went for two and Young converted to make it 21-13.
On the third play of Aurora’s next drive, senior Gannon Gragert picked off Shaw and returned the ball to the 15-yard line. A holding penalty and two incomplete passes had the Antlers backed up on fourth and 17 from the 22-yard line, but Elkhorn went for it and Gutschow took a shot at the end zone, finding Gragert in the corner for the touchdown.
The defense forced a three-and-out, and after two short runs, Young broke through the line and sprinted 46 yards to the end zone, turning a third-and-6 into a touchdown.
“I got the ball, I saw a hole open up and my linemen picked up the linebackers,” Young said. “I just had to score. I did my job, they did their job and we came out on top.”
Aurora looked to be threatening on its next drive, but a double-pass attempt backfired as Mikey Hart picked off receiver Jacob Settles’ throw. Elkhorn put together a seven-play, 80-yard drive that included a 60-yard bomb to Gragert to take a 42-13 lead with 10:42 remaining. The 1-yard touchdown plunge by Gutschow capped a 36-0 run for the Antlers.
Aurora ended the Elkhorn run with a 10-play, 65-yard touchdown drive, but it proved to be far too little, way too late.
“They had momentum and we were just trying to keep our head above water,” Wortman said. “The second half — character, they were in shape, and it paid off. In the second half, I think we wore them down. We kept it close in the first half and we won the second half.”
In addition to the 75-yard kickoff return and the two-point conversion, Young ran the ball 15 times for 110 yards and a score. The big performance capped a phenomenal career that included more than 2800 yards rushing, more than 600 yards receiving and 39 total offensive touchdowns in addition to his contributions as a cornerback and a kick returner.
“Aiden has been starting for four years,” Wortman said. “He’s had a great year, a great career and his leadership… The kickoff return —if we didn’t have that, who knows what the second half’s going to be if we’re down.”
Gutschow led the Antler offense with 6-of-11 passing for 157 yards and a touchdown plus six carries for 46 yards and another three scores. He had completions of 29, 31, 22 and 60.
“Gee whiz, what an arm this guy’s got,” Wortman said. “As a freshman, he was a little skinny kid and he just kept getting better and better. He worked hard. And he wasn’t bad last year as a junior, but from his junior to his senior year he really blossomed. He really just got a lot better and he went out on a nice note, he really did. His leadership, he had a couple key runs, his passes.”
Gragert caught three passes for 91 yards plus the interception. Gutschow’s other three completions went to Nebraska baseball commit Drew Christo, who could have had a future in football had he not chosen baseball. Christo, the son of former Nebraska quarterback Monte Christo, racked up 66 yards receiving plus a number of tackles from his outside linebacker spot.
“The emotions right now are something I’ve never felt before,” Christo told Hail Varsity. “Coming into the game, I knew win or lose my emotions were going to be high being this was my last football game ever. The game of football’s just given me so much in my life I’m grateful for. To go out on top makes it that much better. It was a great night for sure.”
Elkhorn limited Aurora to 86 yards and forced two turnovers in the second half. Shaw finished 17-of-28 passing for 165 yards and carried the ball 22 times for 60 yards and two scores. Junior running back Mack Owens ran the ball 20 times for 98 yards and a score.
One year after taking their lumps in Class A and finishing 3-6, the Antlers are Class B champions.
“Nothing better,” Wortman said. “These guys have struggled and worked. We were in Class A and we learned a lot of lessons there, but they came back, they worked hard this summer and it was a job well done.”
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.