WILMINGTON – In a game surprisingly full of big plays, it was the final 3 yards that proved to be the difference between the Newman Comets and the Wilmington Wildcats in their Class 3A quarterfinal contest Saturday at Becker Field.
Needing a 2-point conversion to tie the score with 1:20 to play, Wilmington running back Chris Tworek was swarmed under by the Newman defense a half-yard short of the goal line, preserving the Comets’ 28-26 lead.
Newman senior Ryan Schaab then recovered the onside kick to secure the victory, sending the Comets on to next weekend’s 3A semifinals. They will play a home game against Aurora Christian, a 49-14 winner over Winnebago.
“Wheeeeew,” Newman coach Mike Pappoccia said. “When we don’t play as a team, we’re not very good, but we played as a team on that extra point, and that turned out to win us the game.”
It didn’t seem that late stop would be necessary. The Comets (12-0) led 28-14 with 4 minutes left in the third quarter after Nick Rude’s 10-yard TD run, set up by a 53-yard pass from A.J. Sharp to Maison Bittner – Sharp’s lone completion of the game – two plays earlier. It was Bittner’s 19th birthday.
But Wilmington (9-3) battled back. Nick Anderson recovered a punt blocked by Mike Wolfe in the end zone with 10:50 to play, but the extra point kick was wide right, leaving Newman with a 28-20 lead.
The Wildcats forced a punt, then took 5:50 to drive down and get within 28-26 on a 7-yard run by Tworek. But after back-to-back Wilmington timeouts – the Wildcats’ final two – the Comets held on the conversion to hold on for the win.
“We knew where the ball was going; we just followed the big lineman [Derek Romano] when he went into their backfield,” Newman lineman Danny Trygstad said. “We all did our job to get the stop. I didn’t see what happened, because I was at the bottom of the pile, but I looked up and saw the ref saying it was no good. It’s was unbelievable.”
“That’s nothing new for us,” Newman linebacker Brian Bahrs added. “It seems like we’ve had to make a lot of stops inside the 5-yard line this year. But those plays come down to who has more heart, and I guess we did tonight.”
“We like being back against the goal line,” Bittner chimed in. “It’s fun to be tested, show what you’ve got when it’s just you and them, and they only need 3 yards.”
Just like the conversion run up the middle, everybody in the stadium knew an onside kick was coming. The ball bounced right up the middle, settling into Schaab’s hands without a bobble. He rolled over on top and never let the ball go until the officials took it from his hands.
“We all told each other, ‘Just get the ball, don’t do anything crazy, just fall on it,’ ” Schaab said. “It came right to me, and I grabbed it and waited for them to hit me. I was just hoping it was secure enough and they couldn’t knock it out.”
Sharp then took a knee three times, setting off a celebration on the Newman side of the field as the final horn sounded.
“It came down to execution, and they were better today,” Wilmington coach Jeff Reents said. “We gave them two fumbles, and you can’t do that in the quarterfinals. We lined up and went with our bread and butter on that final conversion, us versus them to see who was better, and we came up a half-yard short.”
Newman turned both Wildcat fumbles into points. Kyle Moore recovered the first at the Newman 46 with 7:23 left in the first quarter, and the Comets went 54 yards in 11 plays, capped by Bittner’s 25-yard TD run on a reverse on fourth-and-5.
After the teams traded punts, Tanner Cole scooped up Wilmington’s second fumble and rumbled 35 yards for a 14-0 lead less than 15 minutes into the game.
But Wilmington answered, following an interception deep in its own territory with a 75-yard Tworek sprint to get to within 14-7; that was the score at halftime.
Newman took a 20-7 lead on Jake Snow’s 14-yard TD run, on which he broke a tackle in the backfield and in the hole before outrunning the defense to the end zone. Wilmington responded immediately with a 40-yard TD pass from Sean Liaromatis to Mike Wolfe on a fake punt, but Newman answered with Rude’s TD run set up by the big-play pass from Sharp to Bittner.
“We knew they were a tough team,” Bittner said, “and it came down to blocking and tackling – and we did the little things well when we really needed it. We expected them to keep fighting us until the end – that’s what the playoffs are all about – and I’m proud of the way we stayed in there and fought back.”
Class 3A quarterfinals
Newman 28, Wilmington 26