WILMINGTON – Newman’s advancement in the Class 3A football playoffs came down to whether or not it could stop a 2-point conversion run.
It’s probably a good thing it didn’t come down to a punt.
The Comets, who held off Wilmington 28-26 in the 3A quarterfinals Saturday night, needed that last-minute stand because of its failure to execute a pair of punts that resulted in two touchdowns for the Wildcats.
Newman (12-0) led 20-7 and was dominating play, but gave Wilmington some life with just less than 6 minutes left in the third quarter. The Wildcats dropped back to punt from the Comets’ 40, but instead worked a sweet fake.
The ball was hiked to the upback, who happened to be Wilmington quarterback Sean Liaromatis. He fired a strike to cat-quick back Mike Wolfe, who broke a tackle and sprinted in for a score.
“They caught us a little off guard,” Newman assistant coach Tim Nelson said, “and we weren’t quite prepared for that.”
Newman responded with a touchdown and 2-point conversion in less than 2 minutes to restore the two-touchdown (28-14) advantage, but another special teams meltdown was in the offing.
With 10:50 left and Newman punting from its own 18, another problem arose. Brandon Ahlgrim, a sophomore who has been punting on the varsity since the playoffs began, had little chance to get the boot away. Wilmington rushed 10 players, Wolfe got through free for the block and the Wildcats’ Nick Anderson recovered in the end zone to slice the deficit to 28-20.
“I was focused on getting it off quick, because I could tell they were coming,” said Ahlgrim, who punted just four times all season for the 9-0 Newman fresh-soph squad. “I really don’t know. I think they had two guys on one, and one guy got through. The coaches told me one step and get it off, but they were on me pretty quick.”
Becker Stadium in Wilmington has been a house of horrors for the Newman punt units. In 2008, the only score of the game was on a blocked punt by the Wildcats, who won a 6-0 decision to advance to the 3A quarterfinals.
“It’s nothing in particular and I don’t know why it’s worked against [Newman],” Wilmington coach Jeff Reents said. “We’ve called for the punt block many times since then, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It just worked for us tonight.”
A point of emphasis for the Comets will be to make sure it doesn’t happen again next week. Newman is sure to have its hands full with a high-flying, pass-heavy Aurora Christian attack and can’t afford any special teams gifts.
“We thought we prepared well for it, and we usually pride ourselves on being good special teams coaches, but obviously we need some work,” Nelson said. “We’ve got to get better, because whoever we play next week is going to look at that. We’ve got to prepare better, and as a staff and the kids, that’s one part of our game we’ve got to be better at next week, or we’ll be in a lot of trouble.”