On Friday, the Hornets (12-2) found themselves in a familiar setting, one where you want to be at season’s end- Huskie Stadium in DeKalb. Nashville was tasked with the Wilmington Wildcats, who came into the contest with an undefeated record of 13-0. The Hornets, winners of 11 straight, had not lost since week two at Freeburg. Prior to the state title game, Nashville had faced three consecutive unbeaten teams in Bismarck-Henning, Pana, and Decatur St. Teresa.
It was Nashville who would have an opportunity to strike first as they received the opening kickoff. Unfortunately, the drive was fairly short lived, as Colten Gajewski’s pass was intercepted by a Wildcat defender. Although the Wildcats would begin the drive in their own territory, they were still set up near midfield. With 3:14 left in the opening quarter, Wilmington was able to capitalize on the takeaway courtesy of a 23 yard run. They would eventually take that 7-0 lead into the second frame.
The fortunes for the Hornets appeared to be swinging in their favor in quarter two when Gajewski connected with Isaac Turner for a 40 yard catch and run, tying the game up at seven apiece with ten minutes to go in the half. Later in the quarter as they were backed up deep in their own territory, Wilmington was able to block a Hornet punt, setting them up at the Nashville eight yard line with little time remaining in the half. With .16 remaining, the Wildcats punched it in from one yard out and took a 14-7 lead into the locker room at the intermission. Due to a missed Wildcat field goal late in the frame, the Hornets were able to go into the fourth only trailing by a touchdown. After their earlier misfortunes, Wilmington was able to extend their lead to 21-7 following another touchdown rush with just over nine minutes remaining. On the ensuing drive, Nashville turned it over on downs which would later turn into a Wildcat field goal. Turner came within inches of gaining first down yardage on the prior drive.
“At first I thought I got it, but obviously I didn’t,” said Turner.
Trailing 24-7 with three minutes remaining, the Hornets were unable to muster together the late game magic they found a week prior, falling short of the State Championship by a score of 24-7.
“Our defense held strong as long as they could, but offensively we just didn’t make enough plays,” said Coach Kozuszek. “You give them that many possessions, they’re going to score points.”
While it was not the outcome the Hornets wanted, Coach Kozuszek raved about his team postgame.
“These kids deserve so much more than that. Coming into the season nobody gave them a chance to be up here, but we got second in state. They’ve earned every bit of that, and I’m very very proud of them,” he said.
The Wildcats were able to hold the Hornets to 107 total yards for the game.
“We had a pretty good idea it was going to be tough running the ball, watching them on film. The times we did run the ball we didn’t get positive yardage. I don’t think you can put all of the blame on us, you have to give them credit. They’re very good on defense, nobody has had success on them all season long,” said Kozuszek. “Their defense is really good so give credit to them, but we didn’t execute, and we just have to be better,” added Turner.
The Wildcat offense rushed 54 times for 234 yards.
“That’s their game plan, pack it in tight to protect their runners. They do a great job with it, it’s a very tough scheme to stop. It seems simple, like you know they’re going to run it every down so just stop it, but it’s a lot easier said than done,” said Kozuszek. “Our defense at times did their job, we knew they were going to get first downs and we weren’t going to stop them every play, but they gave us possessions, but we just couldn’t capitalize.”
The storybook season was in large part because of a team dominated by seniors, who were part of two State Championship runs.
“You just can’t say enough. The best part about this group, yeah they’re talented and we’ve had a lot of success, but they’re just great kids. There were no headaches to worry about. They held together and they were a close knit group, and I thought that a big part of the reason they had success. They really played together as a team.”