HARTINGTON — Class C No. 4 Battle Creek had all the momentum with a comfortable 21-0 cushion. But sixth-ranked Hartington Cedar Catholic recovered a fumble, and then Jacob Keiser took over from there — and it was almost enough for a stunning comeback.
Keiser scored three second-half touchdowns, including two in a span of less than three minutes, but with the host Trojans trailing 21-18, the Braves recovered an onside kick with 2 minutes, 16 seconds left. Battle Creek then bruised its way to a trio of first downs and hung on for the three-point victory that all but sealed the Class C2-3 district championship Friday night at Russ Hochstein Field.
“I think with every team, you preach finishing in everything you do all season long,” Battle Creek coach Andrew Carlson said. “In practice and games, you want to see that same thing happen. We have a very old team — a lot of seniors who have played a lot of football — and the moment didn't get too big for them. They went out and executed, and it was nice to see.”
The 185-pound senior Keiser made his case as an all-state athlete in the second half. On the next snap after Cedar Catholic recovered a Battle Creek fumble, Keiser broke free on the left side for a 35-yard touchdown. Midway through the fourth quarter, after a blocked punt, Keiser took a swing pass from Tate Thoene down the Battle Creek sideline for a 28-yard score. The Trojans held defensively, and after a long punt pinned the hosts at their own 20, Keiser took another pass from Thoene for an 80-yard score. But the ensuing kickoff recovery helped the Braves finish.
“Our kids had great resiliency in the second half,” Cedar Catholic coach Chad Cattau said. “In the first half, we didn't play bad; we just couldn't get anything to go our way.”
Keiser finished with 103 rushing yards on 15 carries, and he also caught three passes for 115 yards — giving the senior 218 yards. In other words, Keiser accumulated all but 10 of his team's yards of total offense on the night.
“He's obviously a difference-maker. Early in the year, we really had to put together long drives in order to score, and he obviously gives us the ability to score from anywhere,” Cattau said. “He's very dangerous anytime he gets the ball in his hands, and we tried to do that in a variety of ways, especially in the second half. I think that he proved to everybody that he's one of the best players in the state.”
The final numbers illustrated how much the defenses dominated.
After the Braves held the Trojans to 47 offensive yards in the entire first half, Cedar Catholic finished with 208. But outside of its three scoring plays, Battle Creek held Cedar Catholic to just 65 yards on the entire night.
“Our kids played very well,” Carlson said. “You've got to give Cedar a ton of credit because they could have easily crumbled or caved in there when it was a three-score game, but they didn't. The Keiser kid made some phenomenal plays, and he's an all-state caliber kid. We saw that tonight.”
In turn, Cedar Catholic limited Battle Creek's potent ground attack to just 155 total yards and just more than 3.2 yards per carry. The Braves ended the night with 228 yards, including 99 in the first half. Battle Creek had just 80 yards outside of two long touchdown drives.
Kadin Renner led the Braves offensively with 81 yards on 20 rushes, and Reece Bode added another 55 yards on 19 attempts.
Probably the most important players were kicker Mason Mink, who drilled all three of his extra-point attempts to provide the margin of victory, and punter Luke Stueve, who pinned the Trojans a couple of times.
“We pride ourselves on special teams, and we're fortunate,” Carlson said.
It was a surprising turn given how much Battle Creek's offense controlled the game.
After the teams combined to punt on their first five possessions, the Braves got on the board in a big way when Slate Kraft got behind a pair of Trojans on a play-action pass, and Payton Frederick found Kraft for a 29-yard score one play after a big punt return.
Battle Creek then turned to its typical ground-and-pound offense two possessions later. It resulted in a 16-play, 65-yard drive that took 8:07 off the clock, ending when Frederick snuck the ball across on fourth-and-goal with 31 seconds left in the first half.
The first drive of the third quarter was more of the same, with Battle Creek draining 6:01 off the clock on a 12-play, 83-yard march that ended with Renner's 5-yard touchdown.
“We want to be a physical, tough football team, and I felt that we saw that tonight,” Carlson said.
For both teams, the attention turns to the regular-season finale. Battle Creek hosts Crofton (2-6), while Cedar Catholic travels to Stanton (2-6).
“Both teams fought hard and played hard,” Cattau said. “That's what Friday nights are all about.”
BC (7-1) 7 7 7 0 — 21
HCC (4-4) 0 0 6 12 — 18
BC: Slate Kraft 29 pass from Payton Frederick (Mason Mink kick), 3:19.
BC: Frederick 1 run (Mink kick), 0:31.
BC: Kadin Renner 5 run (Mink kick), 5:59.
HCC: Jacob Keiser 35 run (PAT failed), 2:34.
HCC: Keiser 28 pass from Tate Thoene (PAT failed), 5:35.
HCC: Keiser 80 pass from Thoene (PAT failed), 2:16.