On a chilly autumn evening when two rivals clash on the gridiron, you can throw out the records and just enjoy the game of football on one of its purest levels.
When North Platte and West Platte lined up on the Bluejays’ homecoming night both were eager to win a football game and bring home the Tobacco Stick.
On this night, the Panthers edged the Bluejays 18-14 in KCI Conference play at West Platte High School on Friday, Sept. 28 in Weston, Mo.
The Panthers (2-4, 2-2 KCI) came into the game with a two-game winning streak in the series with the Bluejays last win coming on the road in 2015. First-year Panthers coach Reis Wright and his players were determined to keep the trophy in Dearborn and Bluejays coach Paul Thomas and his players wanted it returned to Weston.
The game started out as a defensive battle with the Panthers leading 6-0 at half, before the Blue Jays seized the lead in the third quarter 8-6. Then in the fourth, it was a battle of emotions.
The Panthers trailing 8-6 at the tail-end of the third quarter found themselves in Bluejays’ territory when their drive stalled on 39-yard line. Wright made the decision to call for the fake keeping the ball in the hands of his junior quarterback/punter Andrew Hernandez, who missed the Panthers previous two games.
Hernandez made Wright’s decision payoff when he improvised and carried the ball 18 yards for a Panthers first down on the final play of the third.
“I was out last week and I was just trying to keep the team going,” Hernandez said. “I just wanted to make a play to keep our offense on the field.”
Facing another fourth down on the drive at the Bluejays 12-yard line, Hernandez handed the ball off to senior running back Chance Chesnut, who plowed through the Bluejays defense for a 4-yard gain and a Panthers first down at the 8-yard line.
On the very next play, Hernandez tossed the ball to junior running back Joel Smyser, who bruised his way through the defense across the goal-line for an eight-yard run. Hernandez’s pass to Chesnut fell incomplete on the conversion and the Panthers held a 12-8 lead with 9:58 left in the game.
Smyser ran for 80 yards on five carries.
“Hernandez made a great-play and gave our offense a chance to stay on the field,” Wright said. “Then we got the score by Joel (Smyser) and got the lead back. Big drive by our guys.”
Both teams swapped drives where neither team collected a first down before the Bluejays regained possession with time ticking down on the game clock.
The Blue Jays (1-5, 0-4 KCI) started the drive on their own 19-yard line quickly picking up two first downs on runs by senior classmates quarterback Noah Johnson and running back Gavin Davis. After a six-yard run by Johnson had the Bluejays near midfield, he handed the ball off to Davis and as he crossed into Panthers territory finishing off an eight-yard gain, Hernandez went down with an injury and had to be helped off the field.
“Life was happening when Andrew (Hernandez) went down, but after I spoke with him, I knew he was going to be okay,” Wright said. “This is what life’s about watching my players grow in the face of adversity. I wanted to become a role model and a mentor and I just got lucky becoming a football coach and moments like this make it great.”
The Bluejays, now on the Panthers 46-yard line picked up 19 yards on four-straight carries by Johnson advancing to the 27-yard line. With a fresh-set of downs, Johnson called his number for a fifth time and took a quarterback sweep down the left sideline 27 yards to the house for a 14-12 Bluejays lead with 2:34 remaining. Johnson, wasn’t able to crack the goal line for the conversion keeping the score 14-12.
Johnson finished 5-for-12 through the air with 49 yards passing and two interceptions and rushed 19 times for 122 yards.
On the ensuing kickoff, Thomas gave his kicker — Davis — the go-ahead to kick a pop-up kick that was recovered by Bluejays senior Hunter Hendrickson their own 45-yard line.
On the first play of the drive, the Bluejays were called for holding moving the ball back to their own 45-yard line.
After a couple of short runs by Johnson, the Bluejays were facing a third-and-long when Johnson dropped back to pass, he lofted a throw into traffic and Panthers junior linebacker Ty French made a leaping two-hand catch for the interception and returned the ball down to the Panthers’ 31-yard line with 2:08 left.
“I thought our kids fought-hard,” Thomas said. “We were down 6-0 and we didn’t have a good first half. I thought our kids did a good job coming back. Johnson and Davis responded well in the second half and throughout the game. We just didn’t make the plays at the end.”
After a run by Hernandez went nowhere the Panthers were facing a second-and-long with just under two minutes left. On second down, Hernandez dropped back to pass, then he scrambled up the right sideline, before jamming on the brake and shifting gears backwards and to the left before he planted his feet, after he spotted a wide open receiver junior running back Caine Huffman, who was all-alone.
Hernandez lofted the throw across the field and it found a landing spot in the arms of Huffman who crossed the end zone for a 32-yard touchdown reception giving the Panthers an 18-14 lead with 1:26 remaining. The run by Hernandez failed on the conversion keeping the score 18-14.
Hernandez, toted the ball 20 times for 112 yards and went 2-for-5 for 58 yards with an INT and a score.
“I knew after I went out of the game, I had to get back in the game. It hurt but I had to get back in the game,” Hernandez said. “I knew it wasn’t going to work, when I started scrambling so I kept my eyes up. Then I saw Caine (Huffman) close to the end zone, so I threw the pass. It was unbelievable when he caught the pass. It’s amazing winning the stick for all three years. I want to keep it next year, too.”
The Bluejays received the ball back with 1:23 left needing to drive 77 yards. Johnson got them down to the Panthers’ 11-yard line before a last-ditch pass attempt fell incomplete as time expired and the Panthers were victorious for the third-straight year and were going back home with the “tobacco stick” after an 18-14 victory.
“I don’t know if there is any feeling I can tell you, just that I am blown away, proud and incredibly happy. The boys’ deserve it and they took it,” Wright said. “Ty (French) made an incredible interception and return. Then from there Andrew (Hernandez) made an incredible play on a play that broke down. Not to be left out, our defense made an incredible stand to get us the ball back,”
The Panthers and Bluejays played a scoreless first quarter before the Panthers scored on a two-yard plunge by Chesnut with 2:17 before half for a 6-0 lead. A drive that was set up by an interception from Smyser in Bluejays territory.
The Bluejays scored twice in the third, thanks to some key plays by Davis.
Davis booted a 60-yard punt pinning the Panthers on their won two-yard line. On second down, Davis stopped the Panthers ball carrier in the end zone for a safety with 9:24 left in the third trimming the Bluejays deficit to 6-2.
On the ensuing drive, Davis and Johnson carried the ball nine times until Johnson cashed in from two yards out putting the Bluejays ahead 8-6 with 5:09 left in the third. Davis was unable to convert the extra-point.
Davis had 17 carries for 71 yards.
WEST PLATTE Looking Ahead
The Bluejays will look to rebound against the Hamilton Hornets who are coming off a 42-6 thrashing on the road against the Plattsburg Tigers. The Hornets, coached by Caleb Obert, won 42-7 last season in Weston.
The BlueJays and Hornets will kickoff at 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 5 at J.C. Penney High School in Hamilton, Mo.
“We just have to get better this week and prepare for Hamilton,” Thomas said.
NORTH PLATTE Looking Ahead
KCI co-leaders the Lathrop Mules (6-0, 4-0 KCI) will invade Dearborn this week looking to keep their perfect-season alive. Last week the Mules dispatched of Class 2 No. 4-ranked Lawson Cardinals 21-7 at home.
The Mules coached by Chris Holt blanked the Panthers 45-0 last season in Lathrop. The Panthers and Mules will kickoff at 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 5 at North Platte High School in Dearborn, Mo.
“Well Lathrop next week that is a challenge for anybody in the state,” Wright said. “They are going to come out ready to go and we need to match that. That is all its about and we believe we can play with anybody, but we are just going to have to prepare and be ready to go.”