NICKERSON, Kan.—In a football game full of big plays and momentum swings, Nickerson High saved the biggest surprise for the second overtime period.
Isaac Warman flipped a halfback pass to the endzone that appeared destined to be knocked down or intercepted. But somehow Jake Stiverson caught the football on his back after it slipped through a Cheney High defender.
Nickerson coach Max Heinlein didn't know what happened until he saw his players jumping up and down on the sidelines after an official signaled touchdown in the Panthers' 26-20 double overtime victory over Cheney.
"The ball went right through the Cheney defender's hands and Jake landed on the ground and did a great job catching the ball," Heinlein said. "We were doing good on sweeps and we were hoping to catch them off guard. Isaac has a good arm and we practice it on a daily basis."
Cheney coach Cory Brack said it was a tough way to lose a football game.
"It happens. Our kid was trying to make a great play and the ball slipped out and landed on top of a Nickerson player for a TD," Brack said.
Nickerson (6-1, 1-0 District 13) captured its biggest Class 4A District victory since 2007 when the Panthers last made the playoffs. Andale (6-1, 1-0) visits Nickerson next week. Cheney (4-3, 0-1) plays at Buhler (4-3, 0-1) next week. District 13 teams featured a combined 18-6 record, the state's best. Nickerson last beat Andale in 2002 when the Panthers missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker.
"Any type of District win is a high-quality win because I believe there are four tough teams," Heinlein said. "It was a key win, one we really needed. There really wasn't a loser tonight because both teams fought hard and both defenses played well in the second half."
Cheney's defense came up big in the first overtime when it stopped two runs and two passes. Cheney ran three plays and trotted out Wade McGuffey for the potential game-winning field goal. But the holder never got the snap in place and the kick never got underway. Nickerson's Caleb Stewart recovered a fumble on the play.
In the second overtime, Cheney played offense first, but lost yardage when lineman Tanner Wulf recovered a fumble to put the Cardinals in a long-yardage situation. Cheney's final two pass plays were knocked down. The Panthers faced 3rd-and-goal, but were forced back on a holding penalty before their game-winning touchdown.
Cheney led 20-14 after Tommy Hill raced 65 yards on the first drive of the second half. But Nickerson responded on Warman's 63-yard touchdown dash for a 20-20 tie. Cheney lost one second-half fumble forced by Cade Hawver that Warman recovered.
The Cardinals rushed for 191 yards and added 86 yards passing. The Cardinals were flagged for several 15-yard penalties that gave the Panthers some free yardage.
"Our kids played hard, but we just made too many mistakes to win the game," Brack said. "I was very proud of our effort. We just didn't it done. We had our chances."
The Panthers led 14-13 in a first half dominated by big offensive plays. Cheney broke ahead 7-0 when Tommy Hill weaved his way through Nickerson's defense for a 39-yard touchdown on a perfectly executed screen pass. Cheney's 84-yard scoring drive covered eight plays.
Nickerson responded when Stiverson shook off a tackle by Turner Beilman on a 28-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ryan O'Toole. The Panthers benefited from a pair of late-hit penalties on the Cardinals and converted a 2-pointer from O'Toole to Sean Rodriguez.
The Cardinals regained the lead 13-8 when Chad Harbour-Nordhal beat the defense of Rodriguez for a leaping 22-yard reception to the goal-line. Tyler Trego scored on a 1-yard run.
Receiver Jalen Karber converted another big play when he outfought defender Tyler Amsink on a 26-yard scoring strike from O'Toole on fourth down for a 14-13 halftime lead.
The Panthers held onto the football with no turnovers on a wet and misty night. Nickerson's Warman led a 170-yard ground game with 125 yards. Quarterback O'Toole completed 13 passes for 140 yards. Nickerson's offensive line of center Hagen Kaufman, guards Nate Hiatt and Cade Hawver and tackles Austin Goldsberry and Remington Fry protected O'Toole and led the rushing game.
Heinlein said the Panthers' defense earned the victory.
"Our defense struggled with the dive play at times, but it was one of our better performances in the end," Heinlein said. "When we were in trouble at the end, our defense picked it up and persevered. As the weather got worse, both offenses started to struggle in the second half."