Jasper’s grasp slips in final secondsNovember 3, 2012
By BRENDAN PERKINS
Herald Sports Editor
JASPER — Cory Hoffman trudged out the Jasper locker room, cleats in hand, and whacked them on the concrete. He clapped them together.
It seemed more about catharsis than it was housekeeping for the Wildcat senior linebacker. It was a purging of anger and sadness after an undefeated season was short-circuited nine seconds shy of a sectional championship. It was a release of sadness after seeing teammate and best friend Devon Traylor taken off Jerry Brewer Alumni Stadium on a stretcher after sustaining a neck injury on the play when Evansville Reitz booted the sectional-winning field goal. And it was an expulsion of some shock from seeing leads of 17 points in the first half and nine points in the final 51⁄2 minutes vanish as Reitz recovered from in trouble to on top.
The Panthers nicked the Wildcats 31-30 in Friday’s Class 4A sectional championship, nosing past Jasper when Zachary Phillips boomed a 34-yard field goal with 9.1 seconds to play. So much occurred on that one game-winning sequence that the Wildcats were left struggling to explain and cope with a crushing finish that, at times earlier in the game, seemed destined to be the celebration of a Wildcat championship.
“It’s just like one of the few things you love doing got stripped away from you,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman, like most of his teammates, retreated to the locker room in tears — not solely because Reitz overturned a 30-21 deficit with two lightning-quick scoring drives in the final four minutes, but because one of their senior pacesetters sustained an injury that sent a hush over the stadium after the melee of Reitz’s game-winning field goal.
As the Wildcats (11-1) attempted to ransack Phillips on his kick, Traylor found himself in the middle of the scrum. While Phillips emerged from the pile hobbling with an injured leg, Traylor remained on the grass. Reitz’s rowdy celebration relented after Traylor continued to lay on the field and remained there for about 15 minutes.
With Jasper’s shot at the program’s first sectional title since 2008 all but dissipated, the Cats planted their attention instead on Traylor, who was loaded into an ambulance that drove straight onto the field. From that, some good news: Jasper coach Tony Ahrens said Traylor was awake, moving slightly and talking.
“It was one of those deals where (the team doctor) was going to take every precaution to make sure he’s all right,” Ahrens said. “I think he’s going to be all right. We just have to wait and see; it’s one of those deals.”
After the scare, the final fling fizzled as Nolan Ahrens’ downfield heave fell into Kenny Hansen’s hands as the Panthers (9-3) extinguished Jasper’s season for the third time in the last four years. The Cats couldn’t craft some magic on one play, where Reitz exhibited a penchant for accomplishing just that with its rapid-strike offense that finally gained traction.
To open the second half, Ke’Andre Vaughn raced for a 54-yard score, and Jordan Summers later nudged aside a defender to gain separation on a 64-yard touchdown reception from Drew Johnston. But the Cats and Panthers agreed the game’s tenor switched on a sequence that came earlier.
After Jasper’s Cole Sermersheim barreled to an 11-yard touchdown — dragging a defender clinging to his jersey and equipping the Cats with a 17-0 lead with 1:06 to play in the first half — Reitz’s stationary offense suddenly gained wheels. In 56 seconds, the Panthers covered 94 yards and scored on Johnston’s 14-yard connection to Rushad Whitlock.
In the first 23 minutes of the game to that point, Reitz scuffled for 34 yards of total offense.
“It really gave them hope, because it kind of put us down,” Jasper senior Dillon Wagner said. “The game, it’s difficult, it’s hard, it’s challenging, and it can go either way when you have two good teams.”
And in Reitz’s case, a team on a roll that’s won eight straight games and executed a one-point comeback victory for the second straight Friday.
“We were down to (Evansville) Central the fourth or fifth game of the year, came back and played a heck of a second half. And ever since then, our kids have believed,” Reitz coach Tony Lewis said. “And I think they understood, once when we got that touchdown there at the end of the half, they had something to believe in. … We’re doing what we need to do to move on, and it was against a great Jasper team.”
Even as Reitz charged, the Cats appeared they might accomplish just enough to keep their heads above the surface.
When the Panthers pulled within 17-14, Jasper responded with Wagner’s impossible catch by the fingertips on a fourth-and-7 conversion for a 22-yard TD reception. When Reitz inched within 23-21, the Cats forced the Panthers three-and-out on their next drive and assumed a 30-21 advantage on the second touchdown run by Sermersheim, who took on his typical hefty load and ran for 137 yards on 41 carries in his final prep game.
The Cats had things more at their speed in the first half. Nick Gobert’s 3-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-goal completed a 16-play drive spanning nearly seven minutes. A 10-play march culminated in Adam Goepfrich’s 40-yard field goal that was just two yards shy of a school record. Later, Gobert flopped on a fumbled punt that preceded a Jasper touchdown.
From there, as the Panthers accelerated the game into what felt like a carnival ride out of control, Tony Ahrens implored his team — which had found itself in just one game decided by less than 10 points this season — for calm and poise.
“By and large, we did that,” Ahrens said. “We just gave up too many big plays. They’re a big-play team, and we gave up too many big plays. We had our opportunities to win the game, and we just didn’t finish.”
They were oh-so-close.
An extra point swerved wide in the third quarter. On Reitz’s last possession, Jasper nearly squeezed an interception but the ball tumbled to the ground. One play later, with Reitz facing fourth-and-7 on its own 37 on the Panthers’ potential last chance with about a minute left, Johnston looped a 28-yard completion to keep his team afloat prior to the game-winner.
“You always think your defense can do it, and you always think your offense can do it,” Hoffman said. “No regrets. You can’t blame it on anything, just no regrets. You always think your team’s good enough to do it.”
For the first 11 games without fail, the Cats were.
All season, Tony Ahrens pinpointed it on the drive and leadership of his 17-man senior group, which engineered a four-win improvement from last season. When it was over, Ahrens addressed a locker room full of sobbing players, assuring them that — irrespective of the result — it was a hell of a game.
“I told our kids, you’ve got to be proud of what you’ve accomplished. These kids have accomplished a lot,” Ahrens said. “You can’t be proud enough of these guys and how they played. You can’t look back and say, ‘Oh, I wish we could have done this or that.’ ... You’ve just got to be proud of what you’ve accomplished, and you’ve just got to live with it. You had an opportunity to win the game, and that’s tough. It’s tough to live with.”
Contact Brendan Perkins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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