KEARNEY — What Kearney High did last week, beating a Bellevue West team many thought unstoppable, will go down as one of the most talked-about games in Nebraska high school football history.
The Bearcats, a .500 team by record, stunned the top-ranked Thunderbirds in overtime, reversing a loss earlier in the season and ending Bellevue West’s dream of back-to-back state championships.
“We always say we enjoy every victory at Kearney High and rightly so, we’re going to enjoy a big upset win like that,” Kearney High coach Brandon Cool said. “So we’ve been on cloud nine a little bit longer.”
The euphoric feeling could last quite a bit longer. Friday night, Kearney High faces Elkhorn South with the winner advancing to the state championship game.
It’s another rematch for a Kearney team.
Elkhorn South won in overtime in the last game of the regular season.
Actually, it’s more than a rematch. The two teams met in the first round of the playoffs last year, so this will be the third time they’ve squared off in the last 11 games.
“We have an idea how they are going to attack us offensively, defensively and special teams-wise,” Cool said, expecting a coaching chess match this time. “We’re hoping the adjustments we’ve made will be successful.”
Cool said the Week 8 game with the Storm was one of the pivotal games of Kearney’s season.
“We really made some improvements against Bellevue West, Columbus and Lincoln High, but our football team really improved when we played Elkhorn South.”
Kearney had started the season 0-3 against the state’s powerhouses — Lincoln Southeast, Omaha Westside and Bellevue West.
Columbus came into the Kearney game undefeated but had the benefit of a weak schedule and Lincoln High wasn’t of the caliber of the earlier foes.
However, Elkhorn South brought about another high-level challenge and the Bearcats proved their equal before falling 28-21 in overtime.
Adjustments paid off
The Bearcats went to Bellevue West with more confidence than one would believe after a 49-14 loss in the fifth week of the season.
“We knew exactly what we did in Week 5. ... We had some good things dialed up the first time, we just couldn’t sustain the offense.”
And, they gave up some big plays.
In the rematch, they took advantage of the opportunities, played terrific defense and kept Bellevue West from striking with big plays.
“That gave us confidence as the game wore on we could play with the No. 1 team in the state,” he said. “Last week was more of a belief factor that we could compete with those guys.”
As the Sesame Street song goes, “One of these things is not like the others ...”
On paper, Kearney is the one that doesn’t belong.
Elkhorn South (9-1), Omaha Westside (10-0) and Millard South (8-1) have been in the top five in the ratings from the start of the season.
Kearney dropped out of the top 10 after its 0-3 start, but no one has played the schedule the Bearcats were dealt (and pieced together).
To start the season, Cool said, “We had a lot of inexperienced guys but we knew we had a good nucleus. It was just that we had to find a way to jell.
“It was just a matter of time before we could get to a higher level to play with the upper echelon of Class A.”
The schedule difficulty didn’t make the record look good, but the Bearcats’ level of play reaped the benefits of the power slate.
“When you play top quality teams they make you better. You could tell our kids were getting experience against those teams in the first three weeks and that made us better,” Cool said.
Kearney High, offensively, has tormented opposing defense with numerous offensive formations and looks that increase the opportunity for a big play.
This year, Cool wanted to take that over to the defensive side, bringing more blitzes and stunts in an effort to be more unpredictable.
“We given our opponents a lot of different looks defensively, which has really elevated our game the last three weeks,” he said.
There’s always regrets. In Kearney’s season opener, a loss to Lincoln Southeast when the Knights intercepted two passes in the fourth quarter — one in the end zone and the othe rat the goal line — to preserve a 14-10 victory.
If Cool had a “do-over” for this season, it would be “better preparation for red zone offense in Week 1. We could have done a better job there.”
Southeast went on to lose in the quarterfinals of the playoffs last week
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