At the end of September, Kearney was sitting at 0-3 with two idle weeks caused by COVID-19 concerns. One month later, the Bearcats are 4-4 and heading to the Class A quarterfinals after beating the ninth-seeded Gretna Dragons 30-28 on Friday night.
“These are uncharted waters, and for all the adversity that these guys have gone through, I take my hat off to them,” Kearney coach Brandon Cool said about his Bearcats. “They are a great group to be around, they’re fun to watch on Friday night, and to me they’re true champions.”
Before the playoff game, Gretna last took the field on Oct. 9, suffering its first loss of the season to Elkhorn South, 35-10. Gretna and Lincoln Southeast canceled their regular season out of caution with both communities hit hard by COVID-19 and as the No. 8 seed, the Dragons had a first-round bye in the playoffs. They didn’t show much rust early on against the Bearcats, however.
It took Gretna just three plays to score as stellar sophomore quarterback Zane Flores hit dynamic senior receiver Trevor Marshall deep for a 72-yard touchdown. Flores added a 1-yard rushing touchdown early in the second quarter to give the Dragons a 14-0 lead.
The Bearcats, who have faced as tough a schedule as any team in Class A with games against four of the top five seeds, didn’t panic. Senior quarterback Preston Pearson led the Bearcats on an 11-play, 74-yard touchdown drive to get Kearney on the board with just four four minutes to go in the first half. Pearson completed all five of his passes on the drive for 57 yards, including a 17-yard touchdown strike to junior receiver Kaden Miller. Kearney missed the extra point, making it 14-6.
Gretna began marching back down the field with Flores completing two quick passes to move the chains. However, he missed his third pass attempt and the Bearcats took advantage as Miller picked it off near midfield and returned it all the way for a touchdown. Kearney faked the extra point and Pearson found senior Logan Trampe for the two-point conversion to tie it up with 2:41 to go in the second quarter.
Kearney forced a Gretna three-and-out and Miller returned a line-drive Dragon punt a yard past the line of scrimmage at the 23-yard line.
“He’s been a big weapon for us, and then for him to get a couple big returns for us, and then the interception, that was a huge one,” Cool said about Miller, who finished with four catches for 37 yards. “He’s a terrific athlete that’s really complementary to what we do offensively and obviously to Preston.”
Gretna gained a total of one yard on three plays and settled for a field goal attempt but junior James Dakan knocked it through from 39 yards out to give Kearney its first lead at 17-14 with 36 seconds left in the half.
Kearney got the ball first to start the second half and Pearson led the Bearcats right down the field. He completed his only pass for 5 yards and ran the ball four times for 65 yards including a 47-yard gain, accounting for every bit of the 70-yard touchdown drive he capped off with a 1-yard plunge.
“He’s the leader of our ship, when it comes to the offensive side of it,” Cool said about his quarterback. “He’s terrific at commanding our offense.”
The touchdown capped a 24-0 run for the Bearcats, turning a 14-0 deficit into a 24-14 advantage in less than six minutes of game time.
“They are a tough matchup,” Cool said. “We were hoping that we could weather the storm a little bit better in the first quarter, which we did not do. But that second quarter was extremely fun — got a couple big plays there, the touchdown and obviously the interception for a touchdown. Those were huge, huge football plays for us. Then I thought our defense played lights out for a passing game as sophisticated as those guys are, I thought defensively we did a terrific job all night long trying to stay with these damn good receivers.”
Looking to get the momentum turned around, Gretna methodically moved the ball down the field with a 14-play drive. However, on third-and-3 from the Kearney 38, junior defensive end D’Andre Ndugwa came off the edge and sacked Flores for a loss of 14 yards, forcing a punt.
On the ensuing Kearney drive, however, Pearson had a pass deflected by one defender right into the hands of linebacker Mark Staley who ran it back all the way for a 25-yard touchdown return to make it a one-score game at 24-21 with 3:32 to go in the third quarter.
Kearney had to punt on its next drive, but Pearson dropped the ball inside the 10 and it rolled to the 2, where another Bearcat downed it. Gretna started moving the ball once again, but Kearney turned up the pressure and senior defensive end Peter Glandt got to Flores for a 10-yard sack, popping the ball loose in the process. The Bearcats recovered the fumble at the Gretna 22.
The Dragons forced Kearney into third-and-11, but a Dragon defensive back got whistled for pass interference, giving the Bearcats a fresh set of downs. Kearney took advantage as junior running back Parker Wise ran the ball twice, finding the end zone on the second carry to make it 30-21 with 6:53 remaining.
Down two scores with time winding down, the Dragons had to hurry. After two incompletions and a loss of 1 on a run, they faced fourth-and-11 from their own 35 and caught the Kearney defense off-guard by keeping it on the ground as Flores handed the ball off to junior running back Mick Huber. Huber picked up 13 yards to move the chains and keep their hopes alive.
“It was the first time we’d ever played Gretna, so it was kind of a chess match to see how they’re going to take care of us on offense and defense and special teams, and the same thing with those guys,” Cool said. “It’s a tough scenario; when you’ve never played somebody, you don’t know what their philosophy is. They had fourth-and-11, and they ran a draw play for crying out loud! That’s gutsy; I take my hat of to Mike [Kayl] and his staff, that’s a gutsy call.”
Despite Huber’s heroics, the Dragons faced another fourth down later on the drive, this time with 3 yards to go, and Flores went for it all with a shot at the end zone that a Bearcat broke up.
Gretna’s defense forced a three-and-out and used its last two timeouts to save time, then Flores orchestrated a seven-play, 49-yard scoring drive ended in a 10-yard touchdown toss to Jackson Alexander with 45 seconds left. The extra point made it 30-28, but Kearney recovered Gretna’s onside kick and took a couple of knees to run out the clock.
Flores, one of Class A’s leading passers, got off to a great start, completing 12 of his first 14 passes for 160 yards and a score. However, the game turned on the pick-six he threw as the sophomore went 11-for-24 for 80 yards, one touchdown and one lost fumble the rest of the way.
“Any time a quarterback throws a pick-six, it can kind of get them mentally,” said Kayl, the head man for the Dragons. “Maybe he was a little reluctant after that to make some of the decisions that he typically does. But it was a team effort and we had some other things happen across the board that hurt us too.”
As a team, Kayl said perhaps the area where the layoff hurt the team the most was in dealing with adversity, and that looked to be the case with Flores for sure. Even so, the sophomore finished 23-of-38 for 240 yards, three total touchdowns and two turnovers in his first playoff game.
“You can’t simulate that stuff in practice,” Cool said. “We tell these guys all the time, you’re going to have to weather the storm here in the first quarter because he’s a good quarterback, and the bad thing about it is he’s just got ‘sophomore’ behind his name, so it’s not going to get any easier for Class A.”
Marshall led the Dragons with eight receptions for 124 yards and a touchdown while Alexander added six catches for 64 yards and a score. Those two formed one of the best wide receiver duos in the state all season, combining for over 1500 yards and nearly 100 receptions. Kearney loaded up against those two receivers and with Flores struggling a bit, Kayl turned more to the run game as Huber carried the ball a season-high 23 times for 108 yards.
“If they’re going to back off and try to take the outside away, which they were doing, we’ve got to be able to run the ball and he does a nice job of keeping the pad level low and just keeping his feet moving,” Kayl said. “So he gets a few extra yards after the contact and that’s what we need to keep the defense honest to a certain extent. If they’re going to back off, we’re going to take advantage of it.”
The Dragons finish 6-2 but should return a strong core led by Flores and Huber.
The short fields and defensive score made a big difference as the Bearcats racked up nearly 140 fewer yards of offense. Pearson accounted for 158 of the Bearcats’ 198 yards, completing seven of his 14 passes for 60 yards and carrying the ball 20 times for 98 yards. Wise ran the ball nine times for 40 yards.
Next up for the Bearcats is a rematch with top-seeded Bellevue West. The Thunderbirds won the first meeting 49-14 back on Sept. 25.
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.