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Football: Comets struggle in adjusting to elements in semifinal loss

Slipping & sliding just short

Newman’s Landen Vesley dives for the goal line during Saturday’s Class 2A semifinal in Gibson City.
Newman’s Landen Vesley dives for the goal line during Saturday’s Class 2A semifinal in Gibson City.

GIBSON CITY – As the weather turned frightful Saturday across Illinois, the results were not so delightful for Newman against Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley.

The stranglehold on the line of scrimmage and the strong running game that the Comets are accustomed to turned into a stagnant ground attack and missed tackles in a 14-8 semifinal road loss.

The temperature was just 38 degrees at kickoff, but a strong 20-mile-per-hour wind and steady rain showers mixed with large snow flurries made for a field that turned from natural grass at the start to a half-grass, half-mud playing surface when the final horn sounded.

“We just couldn’t get our gears going,” Newman coach Mike Papoccia said. “Our linemen weren’t blocking as long as they normally do, and none of our backs could get going. [The weather] didn’t affect them as much as us. This wasn’t our type of field. Give them credit; [GCMS] played great defense and a great football game. That’s a bigger reason than the field.”

The Comets enjoy the luxury of playing their home games at Roscoe Eades Stadium, a fast turf track that the Blue Machine is used to rolling on. Newman played seven games at home this season and picked up seven wins, including the first three rounds of the playoffs.

“It would have been nice to play on turf, but it doesn’t go that way,” running back Easton Bianchi said. “Nothing really went our way.”

The Comets’ quartet of running backs – Cade Gorzny, Luke Olson, Chase Graham and Bianchi – combined to rush 42 times for just 125 yards. Bianchi couldn’t use his electric cutbacks to spring a big run, Gorzny and Graham couldn’t break through the Falcons’ linebacking corps, and Olson found virtually no running room up the gut from his fullback position.

“We knew we couldn’t dance around,” Gorzny said. “Just go straight ahead and try to get as many yards as you can. It was hard to get any traction, but they had to play in it, too. We can’t make any excuses. I hope they win state. We gave it our all, just came up a little short.”

Newman had five total fumbles, recovering all but one. Three came on center-to-quarterback exchanges, as Landen Vesley and Brycen Bartel, who entered the game after Vesley hurt his ankle, both pounced on the briefly-loose balls. The most costly fumble came with 3:56 left in the third quarter, as Bianchi couldn’t corral a pitch from Bartel on a sweep play. GCMS linebacker Connor Wahls jumped on it at the Newman 49-yard line, and the Falcons made the miscue hurt by turning the game’s lone turnover into the decisive touchdown.

Graham mishandled a pitch on third-and-3 on the Comets’ next possession, and had to scramble back several yards to recover it. What might have been a crucial third-down conversion instead resulted in a punt.

If it’s any consolation, Newman’s offensive and defensive lines did create more of a push in the second half to try to preserve an 8-6 halftime advantage. Comet defenders also did a much better job of breaking down to make tackles instead of flying to the ball out of control.

“I thought the defense really stepped up,” Papoccia said. “We did everything better. But when we had our opportunity, we didn’t take advantage of it.”

GCMS improved to 13-0 with the victory, and will take on Maroa-Forsyth next Saturday at 1 p.m. on the turf at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb for the Class 2A crown. The Falcons have played all but one of their games on natural grass thus far, with the exception being a Week 3 road game against El Paso-Gridley.

Luke Freehill led the GCMS defense with 17 total tackles, nine of them solos. Every time a Newman ballcarrier tried to make a cut, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound middle linebacker was there to make sure a 3-yard run didn’t turn into a long gain.

“I was always taught by our coaches to stay a step behind the runner,” Freehill said. “That way when they do cut back, I’m in perfect position.”

The Comets knew ahead of time that the conditions wouldn’t play in their favor. But doing drills with wet footballs and mentally prepping for the weather can only prepare a team so much. The game will still go on, ready or not.

“I really don’t think there’s any way you can prepare for these types of conditions,” Newman lineman Drew Ackman said. “It’s just what God put down here, and we had to deal with it. They just found a better way to deal with it.”

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