This installment in the Most Memorable Cardinal Football Games series is a bit unusual.
First of all, the choice is the first Cardinal loss to be included as a Most Memorable Game. It was an exciting contest on the biggest stage Nebraska high school football offers, however, and the result doesn’t detract from the tremendous season the game capped.
There’s also a bonus this week, as the feature will actually include two games. After all, for the players, coaches and fans who lived that 2004 season, it’s really impossible to remember one while disregarding the other.
Boone Central may have endured an agonizing loss to Mid-State rival Norfolk Catholic in the final seconds of the 2004 Class C1 state championship game at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, but the Cardinals also pulled off a thrilling victory over Catholic on the Knights’ home turf in the regular season.
These were indisputably the two best teams in Class C in 2004, finally separated by a razor’s edge at the end of 624 minutes of football.
It’s simply too bad, from the Cardinal point of view, that there wasn’t a rubber match.
What a Game
The state championship was one that had fans from both sides on their feet, or at least the edge of their seat, throughout. At the end, those involved and those who witnessed the contest knew it could well be called a “classic.”
“Oh boy – what a game!” Boone Central Coach Arnie Johnson exclaimed afterward.
Johnson added that it was a “what if” game. “It was a close game we could easily have deserved to win,” he stated.
Indeed, the Cardinals set the pace for most of the contest, but could never separate from Norfolk Catholic or put the pesky Knights away.
Senior punter Billy Bolin was a major weapon for Boone Central in the first half. Bolin nailed a spiraling boot into a stiff wind in the first quarter. Catholic’s Ricky Distefano bobbled the ball at the Knights’ 15 and a holding penalty moved Catholic back to the five. Boone Central forced a Catholic punt, took possession at the 43-yard line and drove to the game’s initial touchdown in 11 plays. Star halfback Jason Zabka converted a fourth-and-inches with a three-yard run, QB Tyler Shotkoski fired a 15-yard pass to Matt Temme to the 17-yard line, and the Zabka/Temme duo gave the Cardinals a first-and-goal at the five. Senior center Ben Stuhr recovered a first down fumble and, on the following play, “Zabka carried around right end, kept his legs driving when smacked by a pair of tacklers at the two and reached the ball over the end-zone pylon to complete a tremendous TD effort.” The PAT kick hooked left and Boone Central led 6-0.
Catholic answered with a 60-yard, 14-play scoring march. The Knights’ all-state QB Tyler Sudbeck converted a key third-down with a scramble and completion to the Cardinal 25 after a bad shotgun snap, then connected with Distefano for a nine-yard touchdown. Catholic’s PAT banged off the crossbar, leaving the teams tied.
Bolin hit another howitzer with the wind at his back, pinning Catholic at it’s nine-yard line later in the first half. Boone Central’s defense again forced a three-and-out and the Knights’ punt spun out-of-bounds at the Catholic 33. Zabka tossed a halfback pass to Temme to the 25, then broke several tackles on a run to the 13. Two plays later he faked another pass attempt and rambled to a first down at the two. Zabka crashed into the end zone on third down and Nick Christo’s PAT put the Cardinals on top 13-6 with :19 remaining in the half.
Field position turned against Boone Central immediately in the second half. Although the Cards stuffed Catholic on its first possession of the third period, the Knights’ ensuing punt pinned Boone Central at its own two yard-line. Bolin was forced to kick into the wind from the end zone and Catholic took possession at the Card 31. Facing a fourth down at the 14, Catholic went to coach Jeff Bellar’s bag of tricks. “Knight kicker Beau Simpson took a pitch on a fake field goal, retreated from a heavy Cardinal rush and had his ‘up-for-grabs’ heave float down in the arms of a Knight receiver at the two-yard line,” the Albion News recounted. Catholic scored two plays later and added the PAT for a 13-13 deadlock.
The battle was then a defensive stalemate until the final minutes, Catholic missing a field goal attempt with 5:58 to play. The teams again traded punts until the Knights started a final possession at the Catholic 44. Sudbeck completed three passes, the third a 15-yard gain to the Boone Central 21 with :14 remaining.
On the following play, “The Knight senior rolled right and fired a pass in the direction of Ben LaCrosse. Boone Central senior Josh Majerus tipped the ball and it fluttered to Tyler Wenzl at the two-yard line. The junior flanker spun into the end zone for the winning score with :05 to play.” PAT. Catholic 20, Boone Central 13.
Just like that. After 623 minutes, 55 seconds of football in 2004; after all the conditioning, weight training, practice; the blood, sweat, effort and determination, a tipped pass turned golden dreams to silver reality.
Boone Central attempted a pitch on the final kickoff, which was errant, and Catholic recovered in the end zone to make the official score 26-13, but those in attendance knew just how close the difference had been. A yard here, an inch there, another half-a-finger on the football.
It had all been different on September 17 when the Cardinals traveled to Norfolk for an early-season showdown between undefeated Mid-State Conference rivals and Class C1 state favorites.
The Albion News sports writer recounted the following week, “Friday’s game was one of those rare ‘donnybrooks’ in which both teams played to the height of their talents, providing thrill upon thrill for those in attendance.”
Indeed. Catholic took an early 3-0 lead. Shotkoski answered with a five-yard TD strike to tight end Greg Luettel, 6-3. Zabka cashed a 67-yard 12-play drive with a two-yard scoring run to put Boone Central ahead 13-3. Sudbeck and Wenzl connected for an 18-yard TD pass with :19 remaining in the first half. Intermission, breather, 13-10 Cardinals.
In a game of big plays, the biggest may have been the first of the second half.
“Our offensive linemen showed a great understanding of our offense at halftime, setting up our first offensive play of the second half,” Johnson praised afterward. “They had noticed how Norfolk Catholic shifted on one of our offensive sets and felt a counter play to the weak side of the formation would be effective.”
The News described the following, “Zabka took a counter handoff through a hole on the left side, brushed off a pair of tackle attempts as he hit the secondary and outraced pursuers to complete an 80-yard lightning bolt :12 into the half.” Boone Central, 19-10.
The game was far from over, of course. Sudbeck led and completed a drive that pulled the Knights within two, 19-17, with 7:53 to play. With Patrick Cook subbing for Shotkoski, Boone Central drove to the Catholic 45, facing a fourth-down-and-inches. Following a Cardinal timeout, “Zabka took a handoff over the right side, bounced outside containment and turned the corner down the right sideline. The Cardinal speedster cut back through the final Knight defenders around the 20 and finished the scoring jaunt with 5:22 to play.” PAT, 26-17.
Needing two scores, Catholic went to the air, but was foiled by a ferocious Cardinal pass rush. The Cardinals delivered the final stunner when Zabka took a pitch left on third down and lofted a perfect 33-yard strike to Luettel for the final TD. Boone Central winner – 33-17.
Johnson praised the effort and sharp play by his squad to defeat the #1 ranked team in Class C1
“Our team responded with an effort you usually see at the end of the season when games are win-or-go-home.”
Boone Central gave that kind of effort in late November, as well. Two glorious high school football games. Jubilation. Heartbreak.