Friday night’s contest between Norfolk Catholic and Hartington Cedar Catholic was everything a football fan could want in a district championship game to end the regular season.
The Knights won the rushing battle, used the passing game sparingly but effectively and played lights out defensively — especially in the second half.
But the Trojans played well also — especially with a dangerous passing attack. That meant a big difference in Norfolk Catholic’s 27-20 victory was found in special teams, where both squads could identify positives and also things to improve on as the postseason begins next week.
“It was fun to be a part of; these are two very good teams,” Hartington Cedar Catholic coach Chad Cattau said. “They just made more plays than we did, and that’s the way it goes sometimes. We’ve just got to learn from it and bounce back, and maybe we’ll get a chance to see them again in a couple weeks.”
“Those are two of the top teams in the state that just battled it out,” he said. “Hopefully our kids understand that and understand that we have a great opportunity ahead of us in a couple weeks.”
Both teams entered the fray with 7-1 records based on a single early-season loss, both to C1 teams. The Knights, ranked No. 2 in Class C2, fell to Boone Central 39-17 in the opener, and Cedar Catholic, ranked No. 4, fell to Battle Creek in its second outing 24-7.
The Trojans had the better start, beginning their opening possession at midfield following Grant Arens' 35-yard kickoff return. But they still needed 11 plays — including Tate Thoene’s 9-yard touchdown pass to Carter Arens.
But Norfolk Catholic blocked Blake Arens’ PAT kick — the first of two blocks by the Knights, both in the first half — to keep the score at 6-0.
The Knights then turned the ball over on their second offensive play of the game when Jaxson Bernecker separated the Norfolk Catholic ball carrier from the football, then grabbed and advanced the ball to midfield.
However, the Norfolk Catholic defense stiffened, forcing a turnover on downs followed by forcing two consecutive Trojan punts. The Knights scored touchdowns following both to take a 13-6 lead.
The first Norfolk Catholic score occurred after Brennen Kelley’s 25-yard punt return to the HCC 21 and the Knights scored three plays later on Jason Janssen’s 5-yard run. When Max Hammond’s PAT kick sailed wide left, the teams were tied at 6-6 early in the second quarter.
Another short punt after a high snap set up a Norfolk Catholic 73-yard scoring drive that appeared ready to stall with a fourth and 4 at HCC’s 34. But Karter Kerkman took a handoff heading to his left, then reversed field and outran the Trojans' defense to the pylon marking the goal line on the right. This time Hammond added the crucial PAT kick, and the Knights led 13-6.
HCC responded with a 68-yard drive, scoring on the eighth play when Thoene again connected with Carter Arens running open across the middle, but Norfolk Catholic again blocked the Trojans’ PAT kick to preserve its 13-12 halftime advantage.
“A big play, I thought, was that we did not play well on kickoff coverage,” Knights coach Jeff Bellar said. “The special teams were big, and I don’t think we won everything, but we’ve got to try to be better on kickoff team.”
Norfolk Catholic did benefit from a Mason Timmerman punt that rolled out of bounds on the HCC 3.
After a halftime conversation about picking up the pace on defense and covering kickoffs better, the Knights scored twice in the third period. The first came on a 9-yard run by Kerkman to go ahead 20-12 with Hammond’s kick, and the second came on a 1-yard sneak by Janssen, which, with another Hammond kick, had Norfolk Catholic up 27-12.
Kerkman finished the night with 135 rushing yards on 23 carries and two touchdowns, and Janssen also scored two rushing touchdowns, adding 102 yards on 13 tries while also completing 8 of 14 passes for 88 yards.
Although there was an entire fourth quarter to play, the Trojans ended scoring in the game with a 41-yard touchdown strike from Thoene to Grant Arens. This time HCC used a PAT run by Easton Becker to climb within 27-20 but couldn’t mount a scoring threat in the game’s final 12 minutes.
“I know Blake (Arens) will bounce back; he’s been our kicker for four years,” Cattau said. “If the game’s on the line, I would have no problem with him kicking it for us.”
The Trojans finished with fewer than 100 rushing yards in the game but, behind Thoene’s 10 of 22 passing, totaled 317 passing yards and three scores, with Carter Arens leading the way with 111 yards and two touchdown receptions.
Defense by both teams dominated the final period, with neither team able to sustain a drive into scoring position, and the Knights locked away HCC’s final threat on Timmerman’s interception with just over two minutes remaining.
“I told the kids there were a couple mental breakdowns that I don’t like, but other than that, our effort was good,” Bellar said. “We worked hard during a pretty even game.”
Both teams will now turn their attention to preparation for next week's C2 playoff schedule.
Class C2-3 district championship game
Hartington Cedar Catholic (7-2) 6 6 8 0 — 20
Norfolk Catholic (8-1) 0 13 14 0 — 27
HCC: Carter Arens 9 pass from Tate Thoene (kick failed), 7:03.
NC: Carter Janssen 5 run (kick failed), 9:47.
NC: Karter Kerkman 29 run (Max Hammond kick), 3:38.
HCC: Carter Arens 25 pass from Thoene (kick failed), 1:50.
NC: Kerkman 9 run (Hammond kick), 9:04.
NC: Janssen 1 run (Hammond kick), 4:08.
HCC: Grant Arens 41 pass from Thoene (Easton Becker run), 2:08.