Special to the Citizen
DEARBORN — In a game dominated by offense, North Platte defeated West Platte in an intense rivalry game by a score of 44-26.
With the winner of this game getting the treasured Tobacco Stick and Friday, Oct. 4 being the Panthers’ homecoming, this game meant a lot to both teams. There was talking and pushing after almost every whistle, especially as the game wrapped up. With the Panthers seeking their first win of the year and the Bluejays seeking their second, it was obvious that momentum could play a big part in this game.
Panthers coach Reis Wright told the team that they would hit the ground running, and they did just that, scoring a touchdown just two and a half minutes into the game. Quarterback Andrew Hernandez scored this touchdown, but it would not be his last, as he ended the night with 349 all-purpose yards (106 passing, 243 rushing) and three rushing touchdowns.
The Panthers missed the point after attempt in what would end up being the only PAT of the game.
The Bluejays were unable to respond and turned the ball over on downs at midfield to end the first quarter. North Platte took the ball and ran with it — literally. Caine Huffman ran it in for a touchdown just two minutes later, and Hernandez ran it in on the two-point conversion, giving the Panthers a 14-0 lead.
West Platte’s offense continued to struggle in the first half, but near the end of the second quarter, the Bluejays finally made it to the red zone. But unfortunately for them, they turned the ball over on downs at the Panthers’ 15 with just over two minutes remaining in the half.
In an impressive showing, Hernandez ran the ball 56 yards down the field, which led to Joel Smyser running in for another North Platte touchdown. The two-point conversion was successful, and it gave the Panthers a 22-0 lead with halftime approaching.
On the ensuing kickoff, female kicker Alexis Stewart led the Panthers out onto the field, much to the delight of the home crowd and the North Platte sideline. Following her 40-yard kick were cheers from both the crowd and the sideline, as Stewart walked to the bench with a smile on her face.
West Platte’s offense did not do much, and the game went to halftime with the Panthers up on the visiting Bluejays 22-0.
With West Platte being shutout at the half and struggling to move the ball down field, Bluejays coach Paul Thomas thought that there was one large task that the team needed to accomplish in order to have a successful second half.
“We need to get better at blocking,” Thomas said. “If we block better it will help our offense.”
The Bluejays were able to do just that on the first drive of the second half, as they were finally able to turn things around.
Dublin Carnahan threw for almost a third of his total 157 passing yards on one play — a 50-yard bomb to Brayden Cogan who reeled it in perfectly. Trent Taylor ran it in for a touchdown on the next play, and just like that, West Platte was back in the game. The two-point conversion was no good, leaving the Bluejays with a 16-point deficit.
Hernandez continued to lead the offensive charge for the Panthers. He ran the ball in for a touchdown just three minutes later — and again for the two-point conversion.
Both teams bent but didn’t break and the third quarter ended with North Platte holding a 30-6 lead over the Bluejays.
To start off the fourth quarter, West Platte scored immediately on a 28-yard pass from Carnahan to Cogan but, again, failed to score on the two-point conversion attempt.
Just 15 seconds later, the Panthers were in the endzone again on another rushing touchdown from Hernandez. This one was 57 yards, which helped him achieve his impressive 15.2 yards per carry on the night. North Platte did not score on the two-point conversion — their only failed attempt of the night — and they held a commanding 36-12 lead.
On the next drive, the Panthers continued to let the Bluejays hang around, allowing another rushing touchdown, courtesy of Brandon James. West Platte scored on the two-point conversion with 9:24 left on the clock.
However, the Panthers responded quickly. Smyser hauled in a big-time pass for 62 yards, setting North Platte up first and goal.
They scored immediately on a rushing touchdown from Huffman, his second rushing touchdown of the game. Hernandez ran the ball in for two, and the Panthers regained momentum with a 44-20 lead with five minutes left in regulation.
The offense played an integral role for North Platte, and no one knew that more than Wright.
“Any time you put up 44, it makes things little bit easier,” Wright said.
On the ensuing drive, Carnahan threw the game’s only interception to none other than Hernandez, who plays both sides of the ball for North Platte. Unfortunately for Hernandez, he fumbled the ball on the Panthers’ first offensive play of the drive, and the ball was scooped up by West Platte’s Cogan.
The Bluejays slowly marched down the field, and Carnahan threw one final touchdown pass — this one to Ryan Borylo — with about 30 seconds left on the clock. The two-point conversion attempt was no good.
North Platte gained control of the kickoff, took a knee and ended the game.
The Panthers players rushed the field to plant the coveted Tobacco Stick in the ground, which was done with the whole team yelling and cheering.
In a game that seemed to be offense-centered, Ty French led the Panthers with 11 total tackles, while Hernandez managed to get three tackles for a loss.
For West Platte, the defense was led by Borylo, Cogan and Mason Montez, who each had five tackles, while the Bluejays didn’t register a TFL. On offense, James led the team with 73 yards on 19 rushes, and Cogan led the receivers with 117 yards on just six receptions.
Both teams left the field with 1-5 records, but this win was important for North Platte, according to Wright.
“The kids realize what they can do when they play together,” Wright said. “I think we came out, and we ran what we know best. Any time you have 11 guys executing like that, it’s going to lead to good stuff.”
North Platte has momentum as they prepare to face some tough competition in the next few weeks.
“We’ve got to allow (this win) to carry us through to the end of the season,” Wright said.
On a night where the teams looked evenly-matched on paper, North Platte was able to take an early lead that propelled them to their first victory of the season, taking the win over West Platte.
North Platte travels to Lathrop to take on the undefeated Mules on Friday, Oct. 11. The Mules are 6-0 and ranked No. 3 in the Class 2 polls.
West Platte will play host to the Hamilton Hornets on Friday, Oct. 11 at Rudolph Eskridge Stadium.