With a spot in the semifinals on the line, second-seeded Gretna and seventh-seeded Bellevue West faced off in a rematch what was arguably the game of the year in Class A.
The Thunderbirds scored the first 14 points of the game and led for much of the night, but the Dragons put up three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to punch their ticket to the final four with a 35-23 victory.
Here are five thoughts on the game.
Dragons Dominate the Fourth
The game was relatively even for much of the night. Bellevue West jumped ahead 14-0 early in the second quarter, but Gretna immediately answered with a touchdown, then tied it up early in the third quarter. Bellevue West regained the lead with a touchdown late in the third, but the fourth belonged to the Dragons.
Gretna forced three turnovers (an interception, a fumble and a turnover on downs), with Bellevue Wests’s only points coming on a safety as Gretna quarterback Zane Flores ran out of the side of the end zone with one second left as the Dragons tried to run out the clock.
The first turnover happened when a pass to the field side flat bounced off the intended receiver and into the hands of junior Alex Wilcoxson. Gretna marched down the field in five plays to take the lead, 28-21, with 5:42 to go.
On the second play of the following drive, Bellevue West running back J’dyn Bullion ripped off a 37-yard run, but as he was fighting for extra yardage a defender popped the ball free and it landed in the hands of senior linebacker Ethan Stuhr, who returned it 64 yards down to the 4-yard line. Two runs later and Gretna was in the end zone again to take a 35-21 lead with 3:52 to play (side note: Stuhr had a monster game for the Dragons).
Gretna made Bellevue West dink and dunk its way down the field, chewing up nearly three minutes of clock before the Thunderbirds entered the red zone. On third-and-2 at the 10, Husker target Mason Goldman stuffed quarterback Danny Kaelin for a gain of just one, setting up a fourth-and-short. Kaelin tried to run it again, but Justin Myers and Aaron Sibley teamed up to drop him at the line of scrimmage with 55 seconds to play.
Gretna kneeled out the clock until the safety in the final second.
New Passing King
With his first pass of the game, Zane Flores became Nebraska’s new all-time career passing yardage leader, surpassing Papillion-La Vista’s Alec Ditoro’s 8,451 yards. He already broke Ditoro’s record for completions before Friday’s game, though he’s still 15 touchdowns behind the former Monarch signal-caller for that record. He’s completed 67% of his career passes while targeting receivers short, intermediate and long.
The Oklahoma State commit had an efficient if not prolific game on Friday night, completing 12 of his 17 passes (70.6%) for 148 yards and one touchdown. After throwing slightly behind his receiver on the first play of the second half, Flores connected on his last seven tosses of the game, including a 14-yard touchdown that gave the Dragons the lead for good.
Flores added 29 yards and two scores on the ground. The four-year starter for the Dragons will get at least one if not two more games to add to his record before heading down to Stillwater. Enjoy however much time he has left here in Nebraska, because it might be some time before we see another like him.
Bellevue West has had some bad luck at running back this season.
Charlie Gewinner opened the season as the lead option in the backfield but broke his collar bone on his first carry of the season.
Gio Contreras developed into a big-time playmaker as both a runner and a receiver out of the backfield, but he went down with an injury as well.
Junior CJ Gauff had a monster game in the first round of the playoffs.
On Friday night, however, it was Omaha Central transfer J’dyn Bullion in the backfield when the Thunderbirds took the field for the opening drive. Bullion was a standout linebacker all season, but didn’t log a single carry after racking up 637 yards (6.3 a tote) and 10 touchdowns for the Eagles as a junior.
Bullion ran the ball five times on the opening drive, ending with a 12-yard touchdown run. He finished the night with 20 carries for 140 yards and two scores. He’s a big back, listed at 6-foot and 245 pounds, and he showed off plenty of power on his carries as well as some nimble feet. Even on the play that ultimately ended in a costly fumble, Bullion ran it around the left side, cut it back across the field — breaking a couple of tackles along the way — and gaining 37 yards before the ball came free.
Bullion at running back was an intriguing wrinkle for the Thunderbirds, and it paid some real dividends.
Welcome Back, Weber
Gretna had a huge piece of their state title-winning team graduate in running back/linebacker Mick Huber, and early on it looked like the Dragons were going to try to replace him by committee.
However, junior Isaiah Weber emerged as a real weapon for the Dragons, ripping off three straight games with 120-plus yards mid-season. He racked up 720 yards (7.4yards per carry) and eight touchdowns in seven games before going down with an injury.
Weber missed Gretna’s last two regular-season games and its first playoff game with the injury, but in a bit pf a surprise he made it back for the quarterfinal game. In his return, he ran the ball 18 times for 111 yards and a touchdown, and he was the receiver for the only passing touchdown of the game as well.
Weber is a small back, generously listed at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, but he has tremendous feet, good speed and great balance. He’s also a high-level CrossFit athlete and his sister, Sarah Weber, just earned First-Team All-Big Ten honors for the Nebraska soccer team.
Weber’s return was even more important because his replacement, Riley Egenberger, suffered an injury during the team’s first-round win last week.
Friday’s game featured a number of players with Nebraska football offers.
For Bellevue West, 2024 target Danny Kaelin went 27-for-41 for 166 yards and the one interception and he ran the ball 10 times for 64 yards. Kaelin made some nice passes and ran tough, but the Gretna defense did a great job of making everything difficult down the field with great coverage in the back end (outside of a couple of pass interference calls). Kaelin led the state in passing this season with over 3,000 yards in 11 games during his first full season as the starter for Bellevue West.
Dae’vonn Hall, another 2024 Nebraska target, led Bellevue West in receiving yards with 62 on six receptions. He had four gains of double-digit yards as Kaelin did a good job connecting with him on intermediate routes. Unfortunately, Hall went down late with an injury and needed help to get back across the field to his sideline after helping make the tackle on Stuhr’s fumble return.
A player who has also seen one interest from Nebraska is junior receiver Isaiah McMorris who led the state in receiving yards after transferring from Bellevue West. He got plenty of touches on Friday night, but the Dragons didn’t give him anything easy, blowing up a number of his screen passes and limiting him to just 57 yards on 15 receptions plus two carries for 9 yards, including an 8-yard touchdown run out of the wildcat (or Thundercat) that saw him muscle through a tackle attempt to get into the end zone.
For the Dragons, target Mason Goldman and preferred walk-on commit Korver Demma led the charge and made plays throughout the night. While I don’t have full defensive stats, I saw both record tackles for loss and quarterback hurries as they took turns (along with Stuhr and Harrison Weber) making life difficult for the Bellevue West offense.
Gretna will face No. 11 Omaha Creighton Prep in the semifinals after the Junior Jays upset previously unbeaten and third-seeded Elkhorn South, 10-3.
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.