On Oct. 21, Norfolk Catholic hosted Hartington Cedar Catholic to end the regular season, winning a 14-0 slugfest.
Almost exactly a month later, the teams will meet again in the home of the Huskers. The road there from the previous game was an interesting one for both.
In that contest, Karter Kerkman, lead running back for the Knights, suffered a leg injury in the second quarter and has been limited ever since. As a result, other backs have seen a bulk of the carries while Kerkman gets a few each game.
“We’ve added some other guys in to get some carries and Brandon Kollars and Trevin Sukup and then Kanyon Talton’s role kind of got added to a little bit. He’s really stepped up well,” coach Jeff Bellar said. “I think that’s been good for us.”
Kerkman’s availability for the championship will be a game-time decision. However, his contributions on West Madison Avenue, and those of his senior classmates, have already gone beyond the field of play.
The current seniors were freshmen in 2019, when the Knights went 3-6 and missed the playoffs. In their final two years, they’ve helped lead the team back to the state championship game in consecutive years, with a chance to bring home a title.
This is a team that’s always wanted to play at that high level. Part of that has been welcoming the underclassmen with open arms.
“They’ve worked extremely hard, and I think that they’ve done a very good job of continuing unity through all the classes and really making it a team concept and not saying, ‘Hey we’re a big senior now. We don’t want to be around you,’ ” Bellar said. “They’ve really opened arms to all the athletes.
“You always hope it happens. Some years it doesn’t happen as well as others, and I think it’s something that they have to do. A coach can talk about it, but they have to live it, and I think these guys have done a good job of that.”
After the final whistle blew in October, the Trojans knew they were close.
There was no shame in losing to the team rated by many as No. 1 in Class C2 the entire season, but a few things still had to be done here and there.
“After that game, the kids kind of felt like ‘Hey, we’re not far off,’ ” coach Chad Cattau said. “We’ve just got to get a little bit better and just keep working and hopefully we get things to go our way and we’ve been fortunate enough to do that.
“I think that game was big for us mentally as much it was anything else.”
Cedar Catholic hasn’t lost since, all the while coming out on top of two slugfests in the state quarterfinal and semifinal.
A big reason why has been its defense, which has allowed 23 points since the Norfolk Catholic game. This includes no touchdowns in regulation in either of its last two games.
Cattau credits the front seven, all seniors, with the group’s success.
“They’ve all gotten used to the quarterfinals in the past, but they have a lot of experience,” he said. “Some of them have started for three years and so nothing seems to bother them or be too big a situation for them and they’ve really done a good job of just keeping their heads in tight situations and kind of stepping up their play when they’ve needed to.”
In addition, Cedar Catholic has done some reshuffling in the past month. Andrew Jones went from quarterback to running back with Braeden Reifenrath taking his spot. Much of it came because of injuries in the backfield, but both have done great regardless.
“Andrew does a great job of running hard. He’s had the ability through the first three games of getting those extra yards after contact, and that’s been very, very big for us,” Cattau said. “Braeden does a good job of throwing the ball when we need him to so that’s definitely been a big asset for us as well.”
This will be the seventh time the programs have met in the past five seasons, since Norfolk Catholic went from C1 to C2. It’ll be the second time they’ve met in the state playoffs. None of those previous contests’ stakes were as high as this.