O'Neill St. Mary's vs Elgin/Elgin Pope John

O’NEILL — Ninth-seeded Elgin Public/Pope John didn’t get off to a good start in its Class D2 playoff game against O’Neill St. Mary’s on Thursday afternoon.

Likewise, the Wolfpack didn’t necessarily finish the game efficiently, but EP/PJ will certainly take the outcome — a 30-26 win over the Cardinals that allows the team to advance to the second round.

“I think we have some kids who haven’t been on a stage like this in a while where we’re in a (playoff) game we felt we could play and compete in; I think the nerves got to us a little bit,” EP/PJ coach Greg Wemhoff said. “We’ve been in the playoffs, but we typically go in as a lower seed and end up having to play a top seed. This time we felt that we could make some noise.”

Nervousness would be understandable considering EP/PJ has just two seniors on its 25-player roster, and nerves may have contributed to the Wolfpack fumbling the opening kickoff — which the Cardinals’ Tate Thompson promptly pounced on at the EP/PJ 16-yard line.

Five plays later, St. Mary’s quarterback Aidan Hedstrom scampered into the end zone for a touchdown, but the PAT pass failed — the first of three failed two-point conversion attempts by the Cardinals, which proved to be a difference-maker in the contest, since the Wolfpack were successful on three of their four touchdown PATs.

“The fumble on the opening kickoff — it’s tough to overcome stuff like that,” Wemhoff said. “But I thought our guys pulled together and did a tremendous job.”

Trailing 6-0, EP/PJ managed a first down at the Cardinals’ 34 three plays into its first offensive possession but then committed three consecutive movement penalties to end the drive.

After forcing a St. Mary’s punt, however, the Wolfpack began to settle in on their next possession, marching from their own 11-yard line to midfield before Jack Wemhoff — EP/PJ’s junior workhorse running back — bolted 41 yards for a touchdown to open the second quarter, the first of three touchdowns the Wolfpack would score during the period.

“That’s kind of been our problem all year; there’s been several games where we go down the field and score right away,” St. Mary’s coach Tony Allen said. “I don’t know if we relax or what. They brought it to us — they’re young, but sometimes a young team doesn’t feel pressure.”

Following another St. Mary’s punt, EP/PJ needed just two plays to add another long touchdown, this one a 75-yard aerial from junior quarterback Paiton Hoefer to Colton Wright — the first of back-to-back connections by the pair, the second occurring seven minutes later from 19 yards out with 29 seconds left in the first half that increased the Wolfpack lead to 22-6.

“They were crowding the line of scrimmage, and we thought we could throw over the top of them a little bit,” Wemhoff said. “Our running game was just good enough to keep them honest, and we were able to do some play-action and go over the top with our ends, who played really well, I thought.”

But O’Neill St. Mary’s — 7-1 on the season, which included a 28-7 win at EP/PJ in the season opener — responded with a four-play, 47-yard scoring drive of its own to cut the deficit to 22-12 when Hedstrom tossed a 1-yard pass to Isaac Everitt on the last play of the first half.

“They were just more physical than us in the first half,” Allen said. “We had our eyes in the backfield instead of making our reads that we should on the line on those pass plays. That, and being more physical than us, you just can’t play playoff football that way.”

“Maybe some guys just wanted to help more on the run game and just lost their discipline and tried to do too much,” he said. “(EP/PJ) is a good team, and they have some good athletes.”

The Wolfpack scored a final touchdown in the third quarter, a 3-yard run by Wemhoff — who added 74 second-half yards to his 79-yard total in the first half for 153 yards on 28 rushes — to go ahead 30-12.

Hoefer completed 6 of 12 passes for 166 yards, 150 of those to Wright.

The St. Mary’s come-from-behind effort consisted of two touchdown passes from Hedstrom to Everitt, the first a 23-yarder with three minutes remaining in the third quarter to cut the deficit to 30-18 and a 29-yarder with three minutes left in the game that produced the 30-26 final score.

Although EP/PJ was done scoring, there was plenty of intrigue in the Wolfpack’s attempt to secure the win.

EP/PJ appeared to be successfully melting away the remaining time when it moved the ball from its own 18-yard line to the Cardinals’ 20, using 12 plays to finish off the third period and begin the fourth.

But a sack of Hoefer by Wyatt Scofield, followed by a screen pass breakup and near interception by 270-pound senior noseguard Andrew Koehlmoos on fourth down ended the Wolfpack possession and St. Mary’s took over at its own 20-yard line.

Disaster struck the Cardinals’ effort immediately as sophomore Dylon Lueking snared the first of his two interceptions — in this case costing St. Mary’s precious time and the second, later in the game, locking up the EP/PJ win.

Between the interceptions, the Wolfpack wasted a first-and-goal chance at the Cardinals’ 9 when, six plays later, EP/PJ threw an incomplete pass on fourth and goal from the 33.

St. Mary’s took advantage, needing just three plays to score on the 29-yard pass from Hedstrom to  Everitt and, after Hedstrom found Tate Thompson open on the PAT, trailed 30-26.

Even then, each team turned the ball over once more — EP/PJ’s Hoefer fumbling at the Cardinals’ 29, with Adam Everitt recovering and, on the very next play, Hedstrom throwing a ball that was tipped and became an interception, the second by the Wolfpack’s Lueking.

Hedstrom finished the game with 11 completions in 24 attempts, and the two interceptions, for 126 yards. Isaac Everitt caught five passes for 71 yards. Gabe Pribil totaled 45 of St. Mary’s 96 rushing yards on five carries — all in the first half.

“We definitely have to do a better job of finishing,” Wemhoff said. “Once again, that comes with having a lot of sophomores out there — a lot of sophomores and juniors that haven’t been in a situation of the magnitude we were in — and we made some mistakes out there.”

Elgin Public/Pope John will find out its second-round opponent after the first round’s winners are reseeded.

Class D2 state playoffs

Elgin Public/Pope John (6-3) 0 22 8 0 — 30

O’Neill St. Mary’s (7-2) 6 6 6 8 — 26

Scoring summary

First quarter

OSM: Aidan Hedstrom 5 run (pass failed), 10:26.

Second quarter

EP/PJ: Jack Wemhoff 41 run (Wemhoff run), 11:01.

EP/PJ: Colton Wright 75 pass from Paiton Hoefer (pass failed), 8:08.

EP/PJ: Wright 19 pass from Hoefer (Wemhoff run, :29.

OSM: Isaac Everitt 1 pass from Hedstrom (pass failed), :00.

Third quarter

EP/PJ: Wemhoff 3 run (Wemhoff run), 8:23.

OSM: Everitt 23 pass from Hedstrom (pass failed), 3:03.

Fourth quarter

OSM: Everitt 29 pass from Hedstrom (Tate Thompson pass from Hedstrom), 2:57.

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