By Pedro Velazco
The looks on their faces said it all.
A knot of Western players, including seniors Hudson Featherstone, James Davis and Ronnie Smith, junior Brett Boswell and sophomore Quintin Fields, sat beyond the north end zone, mostly silently after their game Friday night.
Featherstone, Davis and Boswell sat on the stands and looked out onto the field, not focused on any one thing. Eastbrook celebrated off in the distance, 50 or 60 yards away.
That was the chasm between the feeling of winning and losing when a sectional championship is on the line.
Eastbrook came out on top 31-28 on Western’s field Friday night to win the championship of Class 3A Sectional 19 in a back-and-forth thriller filled with big moments and big efforts on both ends.
“A lot of huge plays, a lot of huge plays in the game,” Western coach Nate Andrews said of what stood out to him. “They made the last one.”
Western had taken a 28-24 lead in the fourth quarter on a sensational 33-yard run by Davis. On that play, he ripped out to the right sideline, encountered a pair of secondary defenders, and cut back inside to elude the tacklers and score a go-ahead touchdown with 8:48 left.
Western, which led 21-10 at halftime, had wrestled the lead back after Eastbrook (9-3) gained the advantage with two scores in the third quarter. But the Grant County squad countered quickly.
Four plays after the ensuing kickoff, slippery Eastbrook quarterback Jacob Singer faked a handoff, hit the line of scrimmage, found space through the line and accelerated for a 45-yard TD run to give Eastbrook’s Panthers a 31-28 lead over the home Panthers with 7:21 left.
Singer finished the game with 151 yards on 17 carries with two TD runs and two scoring passes. He also kicked a 28-yard field goal.
“[He’s a] dynamic football player. We did a great job with him most of the game, and he made three or four [plays] that killed us,” Andrews said.
Western (6-6) wasn’t out of the hunt. The Howard County Panthers had plenty of time and decent field position at their own 37 yard line after Eastbrook’s short kickoff. Western converted one fourth-down play to keep its drive alive but couldn’t get a second. Quarterback Drew Bellus was sacked on the Eastbrook 39 with 3:22 left.
Western had one last chance, getting the ball back with 37 seconds on their own six-yard line. But Eastbrook sealed the game with sacks on the final two plays.
Eastbrook running back Zach Burton added 77 yards on 19 carries. All but nine of his yards came in the second half as the Grant County Panthers battled back.
Eastbrook trimmed Western’s halftime lead quickly, scoring on the first possession of the second half when Singer connected with a wide-open Heath Brooksher for a 32-yard TD pass. They’d scored on an identical play in the first half after recovering a tricky mid-length onside kick.
On Western’s ensuing possession, Brooksher forced a fumble by ripping the ball out of a Western ball-carrier’s hands and giving the road Panthers possession on their own 25. Singer scrambled 57 yards on the next play to set up his one-yard run five plays later.
“I think getting the fumble and getting the quick score afterwards, and then the onside kick, those things were really big,” Eastbrook coach Jeff Adamson said. “But we got just got a couple of key stops. There’s so many times where defensively we thought we did a really good job and we looked up and they gained eight yards. It’s tough to stop.”
Western rushed for 390 yards.
“It was a game that was back and forth, and they made one more play at the end,” Andrews said. “I’m proud of our kids for battling through all of the adversities they had this year.”
Davis was one of those. The senior runner missed last week’s game due to injury and was questionable for Friday’s game. He responded with a monster outing, rushing for 226 yards on 29 carries with three touchdowns — including a one-yard plunge in the first quarter, and a 61-yard surge down the right sideline in the second quarter for Western’s 21-10 halftime lead.
Featherstone added 107 yards and Ben Lenahan ran for 55 including a 35-yard TD run in the second quarter.
“James played inspired,” Andrews said. “I’m proud of him for that, [for] coming out here and playing that way, putting the teams on his shoulders. It just wasn’t quite enough [Friday] night. We’ll pick up the pieces and go to work. We’re headed in the right direction.
“We’ve improved tremendously as a group, and we still have a lot of improvement to do and the kids know it. As long as the kids are willing to work at it we’ll be fine.”