LINCOLN — A few plays made the difference on Monday, as the Trenton Hitchcock County Falcons defeated the Howells-Dodge Jaguars 22-12 in the Class D2 state championship game at Memorial Stadium.
“Every time it looked like we were going to get something going, we did something to hurt ourselves,” Howells-Dodge coach Mike Speirs said. “We just couldn’t get it going.”
The title is the first for Hitchcock County in program history. It was the second championship appearance for the Falcons, who lost in the 2011 six-man championship game before that division’s playoffs being conducted by the Nebraska School Activities Association.
It’s the first time the Jaguars have lost a game since 2020, when they dropped a second-round playoff game to Burwell 50-14.
The Falcons got the ball to start the third quarter down 12-8. On the fourth play of the drive, Keynan Gaston found Trent Kisker cutting across the field on a deep slant. Lance Brester met him in coverage as the ball landed in Kisker’s hands, but Kisker wrestled the ball away from Brester and took it to the house, giving the Falcons the lead.
Gaston ran in the two-point conversion to make it 16-12 with 10:10 left in the third.
“We’d seen some other teams run a pretty similar play,” Hitchcock County coach Randall Rath said of the touchdown pass. “Their kid made a great play on it. You’ve got to be a little lucky, too, sometimes.”
Howells-Dodge fumbled the ball at its own 24-yard line on its next drive. The Falcons took over but turned it over on downs.
The Jaguars then drove for 13 plays and 34 yards on a drive that took the game to the final quarter. On the first play of the fourth, Brester was stopped for no gain, forcing a turnover on downs.
Brester finished the day with 34 carries for 175 yards and a touchdown, with 123 of those yards coming in the first half. He struggled to get much going after the break.
“You’ve got to give credit to their D-line. They’re some big boys, and they’re good,” Brester said of Hitchcock County’s defense. “They know where to be and when to be there, so they did a great job.”
Hitchcock County picked up two first downs on its next drive. It was forced to punt it away but pinned the Jaguars at their own 5-yard line. The black and green got a first down on a face-mask penalty but were once again forced with a fourth down not long after.
Jestin Bayer took it up the middle on a fullback dive, but got only 1 of the 2 yards needed to move the sticks, allowing Hitchcock County to take over 27 yards from the end zone.
Howells-Dodge was 3 for 13 on third downs and 4 for 6 on fourth downs. Hitchcock County was 5 for 12 and 3 for 5.
The Jaguars forced two fourth downs in a last-ditch effort to keep their chances alive, but the Falcons converted on both of them.
The second conversion was a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, on which Drew Scott reached the ball over the goal line to make it 22-12.
Howells-Dodge then ran out of time on its ensuing possession, ending the game.
“They turned the culture around about four years ago and (they are) very accountable young men,” Rath said of the Falcons. “They’re better people than athletes, so they deserve this. They’re just unbelievable kids.”
Howells-Dodge got the ball to start the game but lost 8 yards on its first drive and was forced to punt, allowing Hitchcock County to take over.
The Falcons answered with an eight-play, 32-yard drive capped off by a Gaston touchdown run. He found Kisker on the two-point conversion to make it 8-0.
Howells-Dodge answered with a nine-play, 55-yard drive that ended with a Brester touchdown. However, he was short of the end zone on the two-pointer as the Falcons held an 8-6 lead.
The Jaguars’ defense held to force a three-and-out on the ensuing drive. Once they got the ball back, the black and green marched 48 yards on nine plays. Bayer put the cherry on top with a touchdown to put Howells-Dodge ahead for the first time. The two-point conversion failed and it was 12-8.
On top of six carries for 19 yards and a touchdown, Bayer led the defense with 18 total tackles and 2½ for loss.
“We knew coming in, they were going to be a physical team,” Bayer said of the Falcons’ offense. “I feel like we stepped up the best we could, but there were some key plays that we just couldn’t capitalize on.”
Hitchcock County drove down inside the Howells-Dodge red zone on the next drive but turned it over on downs at the 14, giving the Jaguars the ball back with 1:21 left in the half.
The Jaguars got the ball inside Hitchcock County’s red zone, but the clock ran out after Brittin Sindelar failed to reach the line to gain on third-and-6 at the Falcons’ 15, going into halftime up 12-8.
Brester and Bayer were two of many seniors whose leadership helped Howells-Dodge get to two state title games. In the eyes of Speirs, they’ll be hard to replace.
“A lot of these guys have been three- and four-year starters that had just graduated, so I’m really going to miss them,” Speirs said. “They’ve done a really good job for us for three, four years, so we’re going to miss their leadership. They’re just a good bunch of kids.”
Howells-Dodge completes the season 12-1. Hitchcock County finishes a perfect 13-0.
Class D2 state championship
Hitchcock County (13-0) 8 0 8 6 — 22
Howells-Dodge (12-1) 6 6 0 0 — 12
HC: Keynan Gaston 1 run (Trent Kisker pass from Gaston) 6:02.
H-D: Lance Brester 6 run (PAT failed) 1:16.
H-D: Jestin Bayer 3 run (PAT failed) 6:32.
HC: Kisker 45 pass from Ke. Gaston (Ke. Gaston run) 10:10
HC: Drew Scott 1 run (PAT failed) 0:58.