by James Stitt
An old cliché in sports is that it that it can all come down to just one play. On Friday night, that was true, as both the Central football team and Tri-City United had one attempt to find the endzone.
After 48 minutes could not decide a winner, nor two overtime periods, the two sides were given one attempt from the 3 yard line to score a touchdown. Up first was TCU, a team that had scored 36 points and was averaging 5 yards per play in the overtime periods. A quarterback boot to the corner was the play call, hoping to catch the defense off guard, but the Raiders stayed home and stopped the Titans 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Energized by the defensive stop, Central quarterback Noah Strickfaden sprinted onto the field to hand the ball to the official and said, “We’re going to win right here.”
“He’s a gamer and I like his confidence,” said coach Gary Kosek. “He’s our quarterback, he’s definitely confident and we love that about him.”
After successfully running flood plays in the passing game, assistant coach Darrin Fox suggested running the play “Cross country” to catch the defense off guard. With the motion going to the right side of the field, the tight end would slip back to the left corner wide open. The play worked exactly as drawn up, with Jake Melsha catching the game-winning score.
“Jake Melsha - two touchdowns in overtime was so clutch,” said Jacob Kalkes.
Though there was uncertainty all night as to who would win, Strickfaden never doubted his team would come out on top with the 42-36 triple overtime win.
“I just knew my guys - they’re my brothers and it’s senior night - I wanted to win it for them,” he said. “How the game was going, I just knew there was no way we weren’t getting in.”
While Central ended the game as the victors, it did not look good for stretches Friday night.
“We’ll look back at the film to see the plays that we missed . . . we made a lot of mental mistakes and we’re fortunate to come out on top,” said Kosek. “But it’s going to be a heck of a lot easier coming back Monday, coaching those mistakes after a win. We’re ecstatic. It was a fun win for the kids.”
The first half was a struggle for the Raiders, as TCU jumped to a 14-0 lead. Central struggled to get much offense going and a couple of scoring drives from the Titans had the momentum completely on TCU’s side.
“[TCU] watched the film and they took away our tailback Bryce Homan - they have big, strong kids and we just weren’t able to move them like we hoped,” said Kosek. “We needed some good things to happen and heads were dipping a little bit, which wasn’t so good.”
Central found the spark they needed when Kalkes intercepted a pass around midfield with a couple of minutes left in the half. After a pass interference got the offense moving, Strickfaden hit Hunter Neubarth on a couple of passes to get the Raiders down to the 1 yard line with seconds remaining. Their first attempt at the goal line was stopped by the Titans, then Strickfaden switched up the play call to extend the ball over the line of scrimmage and goal line for the touchdown with 6 seconds left.
“I saw the D-tackles lined up, I was supposed to give it to Jesse, but I thought I could get over the guy and I did,” he said. “Credit to the O-line, they saved us right there.”
Despite having been outplayed for much of the first half, the Raiders went into the break with their heads held high and the momentum on their side.
“If we don’t get that, I don’t know what happens,” said Neubarth.
The momentum swung even further in Central’s favor as the second half started, when Kalkes recovered a fumble to set the Raiders up at the 1 yard line, where Jesse Weinand would punch the ball in to put the Raiders up 16-14.
“That set the tone for the second half,” said Kalkes. “They were down coming into the second half and we just came out and got that turnover right away.”
Weinand would find paydirt later in the third quarter with another 1 yard score that followed a 14 play drive to put the Raiders up 22-14.
As good as Central looked in the third quarter, the wheels nearly fell off in the waning moments of the game. With TCU out of timeouts and 1:30 remaining, a miscue on special teams set the Titans up at the 30 yard line, down only eight points. And while the Raiders stopped them on the first three plays, a fourth down heave to the endzone gave the Titans a touchdown and a chance to tie the game. Following three penalties that put TCU’s two-point conversion at the 18 yard line, the Titans again found a way to stun the Raiders with a game-tying 18 yard two-point conversion.
In the first overtime, the Titans put the pressure on after scoring a touchdown on just two plays, then forced a 3rd and 9 play. But for the sixth time that night, Strickfaden found Neubarth for a clutch reception, as the receiver came down with the catch to finish with 80 receiving yards.
In the second overtime, it was Central’s turn to deliver the miracle fourth down play. On fourth and 10, Strickfaden found Melsha for a touchdown.
“I think this team does well with pressure,” said Neubarth of the team’s success on third and fourth down. “When we’re out there, we want to have that ball at the end. We just knew we were going to score.”
And though the Titans would get a score of their own and force another overtime, the Central defense finally got the stop they needed in the third overtime to help pull out the win.
“It feels great, all I can say is that I am glad our defense stayed together and finished the game for us,” Kalkes said. “It was up and down and we just kept our heads up and stuck together and ended up winning.”
Weinand led the defense with 11 tackles, Benjamin Hoernemann had nine and Kalkes had eight. Kalkes also had two fumble recoveries and an interception, while Weinand had a pick as well.
“He’s put together his two best games - the last two games he’s been very strong,” Kosek said of Kalkes. “He’s been blocking better, he’s tackling better, he’s getting to his drops. He had the scoop and he had a pick too - that’s a big game. Big turnovers were the difference.”
With the ground game struggling, Strickfaden completed passes to five different receivers for more than 100 yards.
“Our receivers just made plays, credit to them, everyone all around, and Jake Melsha did a heck of a job too at the end,” said Strickfaden. “Our line did a heck of a job too.”
The Raiders move to 3-1 with the win and head to Sibley East Nov. 6. After a slow start and some miscues at the end, Central was able to pull out the win on senior night.
“We were kind of slow to start the game, but as the game went on, on senior night, we wanted to go out with a win for them,” said Strickfaden. “They’re our brothers and we wanted to get that win.”