BRITTON - It's hard to say what the oddsmakers, were such a thing allowed, would have given on Howard holding Britton-Hecla's offense to just one score. But whatever it would have been, not many people would have taken it.
They should have.
The Tigers allowed a Stanley Haskins, Jr,. touchdown run at the 7:18 mark of the first quarter and nothing for the next 40:42, upsetting the No. 2-seeded Braves 12-8, and advancing to the Class 9A state championship against Canistota/Freeman on Nov. 8 at the DakotaDome in Vermillion. In the past two playoff games, Howard's defense has allowed a total of 15 points.
"When you get down to this point of the season your defense needs to be good," said Howard head coach Pat Ruml. "Our defense kind of got tired of hearing how bad they were all year. The guys just took it to heart, and our coaching staff did a great job preparing them. Man, it was just awesome."
The visiting Tigers (8-3) gambled at the onset of the game, with quarterback/kicker Isaac Feldhaus going with the onside kick. It was recovered by the Braves (10-1) at their own 45-yard line, but on a third and eight, Britton-Hecla quarterback Trevor Zuehkle was intercepted by Howard's EJ Leetch. All-game long, whether punting or kicking, Howard's plan was to keep the ball away from Britton-Hecla's return team.
"Absolutely," Ruml said. "(Britton-Hecla) is just too fast. You can't kick to them because they can use their speed and momentum to find some space in the coverage. For us, keep it away from them as much as possible because we knew it would be a chore defending them when they had the ball on offense."
Britton-Hecla's speed did make its first, and, to a degree, only appearance on the team's second possession of the game. Haskins took the pitch from Zuehlke on the left hash, made one man miss and outran everyone else 82 yards down the sideline for the touchdown.
Howard would answer on its next possession. Facing a second and six, Feldhaus hit Leetch in the flat and Leetch did the rest, going 47 yards for the score. The two-point conversion was no good, making it 8-6 Braves with just over five minutes to go in the first quarter.
Howard would again find the end zone late in the second quarter. On second and three, Feldhaus hit Gavin Ericksen-Reisdorfer deep down the sideline for 48 yards setting up a first down at the Britton-Hecla 21-yard line. The Tigers would drive the ball inside the Braves 5-yard line, then, on fourth and goal from the 2, Zach Pardy would bull his way into the end zone. The two-point conversion was no good making it a 12-8 Tigers lead at the half.
The Tigers picked up where they left off to begin the third quarter. On their opening drive they converted on two huge fourth-down attempts. Haskins eventually got the ball after a turnover on downs inside the Tigers' 35-yard line, but on fourth and four, Howard's defense answered, stopping Fosness two yards short of the first-down marker. The Braves were 0-4 on fourth-down conversion attempts.
Britton-Hecla ended the final three minutes of the third quarter with the ball, and began the first 4:16 of the fourth with it. They moved the ball inside the Tigers' 25-yard line, but a false start penalty and an intentional grounding penalty made it a fourth and 23 from the 37-yard line. Zuehlke's pass to Kyler Meyer was incomplete, giving the ball back to Howard with 7:37 to go.
"You know, again, (Britton-Hecla) has so many weapons," Ruml said. "The drive before, we had a man wide open on a fourth (and four) and Isaac got sacked before he could get rid of the ball. If we convert there and score, it certainly would have been huge for us. To be able to keep their offense out of the end zone there was huge."
The game would come down to the final drive by Britton-Hecla, which got the ball back with 3:29 to play on its own 25-yard line. The first play resulted in a three-yard loss. Three plays later, facing a fourth and 10, Zuehlke was stopped after a four-yard gain, turning the ball back over the Howard with 2:15 to play and no timeouts.
BH: Stanley Haskins, Jr. 82 run (Cole Fosness run)
H: EJ Leetch 46 pass from Isaac Feldhaus (Zach Pardy run failed)
H: Pardy 1 run (Brayden Hinker pass from Feldhaus failed)