Special to the Citizen
Up against a roaring Bishop LeBlond home crowd and the possibility of coming away with no score after a holding penalty called back North Platte’s first touchdown, it took all of about five seconds for coach Reis Wright to make up his mind on the next play.
“Lets run it again,” Wright said.
The ensuing play would end up being the most critical of the entire game despite only being minutes into Friday’s district opener at Eagle Stadium.
Behind a touchdown, a failed conversion would give the ball right back to the opposing offense that had just scored. A TD, the Panthers would silence the crowd with a resounding response.
With the ball at the 15, quarterback Andrew Hernandez evaded the rush, slipped outside the pocket and heaved a go-for-broke type pass to wide receiver Blake Gibson for a touchdown.
The touchdown was one of 42 points scored by the Panthers, who picked a good time to score a season high in their defeat of the Golden Eagles 42-19 in the first round of the Class 1 District 7 tournament.
“In hindsight potentially its massive,” Wright said. “You look at that situation and there’s not many calls on the call sheet for it, so it’s basically hey lets go get one.”
The win was North Platte’s first district tournament win since 2015 when they made it all the way to the district title game.
“It feels amazing,” running back Caine Huffman said. “The five guys up front working their tales off in practice every day, and it’s their reward.”
Huffman rushed for a trio of touchdowns in the win, a 46-yard burst in the second and two more in the fourth quarter to give North Platte a comfortable lead.
Despite what the score may indicate, North Platte and LeBlond were locked into a back-and-forth affair early on.
With a 12-8 LeBlond lead in the second quarter on two touchdown catches from receiver Jaren Guck, North Platte responded with 46- and 5-yard touchdowns by Caine Huffman and Chance Chesnut, respectively, to go ahead 22-12 going into halftime.
Despite a winless record, LeBlond fought back, scoring a 57-yard rushing touchdown from quarterback Frankie Gall to cut it to 22-19 in the third.
Key turnovers by the Panthers’ defense in the third kept LeBlond at arm’s length and allowed North Platte to use its quarterback-run offense to grind out the rest of the half.
Despite coming into the game with two more wins then LeBlond, MSHSAA criteria resulted in North Platte having to travel on the road instead of playing at home.
“It was huge, coach talks about overcoming adversity and fighting back and we did that,” Huffman said.
With the victory, North Platte advances to play Wellington-Napoleon (7-3, 6-0) in the Class 1 District 7 semifinals. The top-seeded Tigers won 54-16 against Polo in their district opener.