As I contemplated the choice for this week’s Most Memorable Cardinal Football Game Series, I considered a number of Albion and Boone Central contests.
There are many – many! – worthy, as I’ve mentioned before.
In the end, however, I kept coming back to the memorable 2001 season – a season of firsts. The first year of the Albion/Petersburg merger into Boone Central Schools. The first year for Cardinal sports programs to compete under the Boone Central banner. And, of course, the first state football playoff championship in school history.
While the 2001 and 2014 championship games were featured in the second week of the series, there was another very memorable – and very important – contest that season. The victory that sent the Cardinals on to Lincoln and their initial championship game appearance.
Boone Central had fashioned an 8-1 regular season record, outscoring opponents 201-69 (roughly 22-7 avg. game score) and losing only a 16-14 heart breaker to Mid-State Conference rival Pierce.
In the opening rounds of the 2001 Class C1 State Playoffs, the Cardinals handily dispatched Chadron 24-0 in Albion, then made a long northwest trek to edge a tough, physical Valentine team 14-7 in unseasonable 90-plus degree November heat.
Following that Valentine win, Card Coach Arnie Johnson noted in the Albion News, “It was a very physical game. We have some injuries to deal with, but hope to get them up and running before Saturday.”
Looming Saturday was the most important game of the Boone Central season, with the 10-1 Cardinals hosting undefeated Fillmore Central (10-0) – winner advancing to the Class C1 championship game at hallowed Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.
Ten victories. A defense that had limited foes to barely a touchdown per game and allowed only three to reach double figures (none higher than 16 points). An uncommon meshing of players, coaches, fans, philosophies, spirit and camaraderie in the first three months of a new school and athletic venture.
After all that, the mission was singular and stark. If you want to play on the biggest stage in the state for the ultimate prize in your class, win. Or go home.
Boone Central would, of course, defeat Fillmore Central 21-7, then turn the tables on Pierce in a title game nail biter for the C1 state football championship.
But those 48 minutes of football in Albion November 10, 2001, were tough and tense.
The visiting Panthers were not bothered by the trip north from Geneva, controlling a good portion of the first quarter and finishing a long drive with David Wraggs’ six-yard touchdown run to take a 7-0 lead with 4:43 remaining in the period.
Boone Central was forced to punt on its ensuing possession, but quickly recovered a Fillmore Central fumble at the Panther 19-yard line. The opportunistic Cardinals got a 13-yard bolt from Casey Bode, then runs of three yards by Cole Henn and one-plus by Whit Palmer, setting up third down at the Fillmore Central one. Quarterback Ben Thieman plunged in from there and Josh Inman’s PAT knotted the score with :14 to play in quarter one.
The “game changer” was at hand. Boone Central’s defense forced Fillmore Central to punt, Cole Henn had his “Johnny Rodgers moment,” and the Cardinals had the lead.
Henn’s thrilling 67-yard touchdown dash on the punt return sparked the Boone Central sideline, created bedlam in the grandstands and turned the momentum of the contest in just seconds. Inman again booted the PAT and the Cards led 14-7 with 10:22 remaining in the second quarter.
The game was certainly not “easy” – or one-sided – from there, but giving that Boone Central defense a lead to protect was like poking a group of hungry dobermans with a sharp stick.
Fillmore Central did mount one sustained drive in the second period, reaching the Cardinal 29-yard line before being turned away by Roger Tisthammer’s interception. The Panthers remained tough and relentless, but did not really threaten again.
Boone Central got – and took advantage of – a break in the fourth quarter. Facing fourth-and-two, the Cardinals went for the first down and Fillmore Central was whistled offside on the play. Boone Central gained another first down, with Fillmore Central calling timeout at the 4:39 mark. The Cardinals continued their march, Inman gaining a first down at the Panther eight-yard line, and the visitors’ exhausting their final timeout.
Bode punched in the touchdown two plays later and the PAT all but secured the championship game trip with 1:04 to play.
Boone Central’s offensive production was modest. In fact, Fillmore Central had a 224-185 edge in total yards, coming mainly on three first-half drives (only one of which was productive). Along with providing the game-changing punt return touchdown, Henn led the Cardinals with 51 yards rushing (9 att.), adding a 19-yard reception and another 14-yard punt return.
But, oh, that defense. The Card stop troops carried the day and, in many ways, the season. Inman led Boone Central with 12 tackles in the semifinal. John Krohn and Tisthammer each made nine tackles, Adam Flanagan eight, and Tisthammer had the big interception.
Johnson acknowledged his defense after the game.
“We got some big breaks! Our team played with a lot of determination and the defense again played at a high level. We also took advantage of turnovers,” Johnson told the Albion News. “Our defense was great and consistent. I don’t care who we play at the finals, I’m just very happy for the kids and the effort they have put forth this season.”
Boone Central would, of course, get its rematch with Pierce – and take advantage.
But, on the night of November 10 in Albion, as fans swarmed the field to embrace their Cardinals, the focus was only on the accomplishment of the moment – “We’re going to Lincoln!”
For the first time, it wasn’t just a dream, just a goal. It was reality.
What a night! What a memorable night and game.