From 1995-99, the Cardinals not only closed out a decade and century, but for all intents and purposes, wrote the final chapters of Albion High School football.
The 1995 season was a bit of a strange one. Albion posted just a 3-4 record in the regular season, but advanced to the postseason in Nebraska’s expanded district format. There, the Cardinals thumped Crofton before losing to Mid-State Conference nemesis Battle Creek.
After opening with a 36-7 victory over Lakeview, Albion rebounded from losses to Battle Creek (28-6) and Madison (26-8) by defeating Central City 36-14, then scoring an especially satisfying 26-0 shutout of Norfolk Catholic. The Cardinals had a whopping 311-50 total yardage advantage over the Knights, led by Chris Borer’s 183 yards and two touchdowns in 24 carries.
Pierce brought the Cards back to earth with a 24-7 decision the following week, prompting Coach Arnie Johnson to tell the News, “Pierce played inspired and we were very flat.” Albion did not find further inspiration in the regular season finale, a 14-6 loss to Hartington CC, but ran over Crofton 34-14 in the first round of the District #5 playoff as Borer gained 198 yards and scored four touchdowns.
Albion played a much better game against Battle Creek in a rematch, trailing 9-7 at the end of three quarters after quarterback Jerad Beltz connected with Borer on a seven-yard touchdown pass. Battle Creek outscored the Cardinals 15-0 in the final period, however, ending Albion’s season at 4-5.
Albion returned few players with starting experience in 1996, Johnson terming his squad “very young, inexperienced” in the preseason.
The green Cardinals struggled for most of the campaign, winning just two games and finishing 2-6 after losing 27-6 to Elkhorn Valley in Nebraska’s ill-fated ‘playoff qualifying round.’
Chris Levander led a 19-9 win over Central City with 166 yards and two touchdowns, and also starred in the Cards’ finest moment of the season – a 26-20 overtime victory over Pierce.
The Bluejays took a 20-6 halftime lead in the contest, including a 75-yard punt return touchdown, but Albion fought back to tie in the third quarter as Levander scored on 25 and two-yard runs. Following a scoreless fourth period, the Cardinals knocked down a Pierce pass in the end zone on the initial possession of overtime and stole the victory when Levander bolted two yards for his third score of the night.
After the game, Johnson praised his squad in the News, “In high school football, whenever one team is two touchdowns ahead, they have control of the ball game. At halftime we were down two touchdowns and Pierce had the momentum. You have to consider we had one win and four losses for the season. We came out the second half and controlled the football game. Our team showed a great deal of character coming back considering all the circumstances.”
Levander was named Mid-State Offensive All-Conference after rushing for 1,144 yards and 10 touchdowns. Linebacker Adam Stevenson was a Mid-State Defensive All-Conference selection.
Albion was replacing eight starters on both sides of the ball in 1997 and Johnson noted the Cards’ strength would be quickness, while size would be a weakness.
After squeaking by Lakeview 14-13 in the season opener, Albion nearly knocked off Battle Creek. The Braves expanded a 17-15 lead to 24-15 with 2:48 remaining in the game and Jason Hagemann scored for Albion with :48 to play, Scott Olsen’s PAT making it 24-22. Albion then recovered an onside kick, but Battle Creek intercepted to complete the heart breaker.
Jason Becker rushed for 125 yards and two TDs in a 34-0 rout of Madison, prompting Johnson to tell the News, “This week we have the opportunity of playing the top team in the state. It should be a fun week of preparation.”
It was a rare week when practice was apparently more fun than the game. That top team, Norfolk Catholic, had a bit of revenge in mind and stuffed the Cardinals 25-0. “Norfolk Catholic did a better job of tackling and blocking,” Johnson said. Now there’s a succinct critique!
Albion bounced back to defeat Pierce (20-13) and Hartington CC (29-7), improving to 5-2 prior to the regular season finale. On a cold, rainy night in Albion, a physical Ainsworth squad thumped the Cards 34-14.
Remember Johnson’s preseason assessment? “Ainsworth was a very physical team, while we tried to be a quick team. With the weather conditions we had, it was much better to be the physical team,” he told the News.
Albion took a 6-0 lead over Centennial in the playoff qualifying round, but the Broncos rallied with three straight touchdowns and ended the 5-4 Cardinal campaign with a 30-14 victory.
Players receiving Mid-State All-Conference awards were Jon Perone (QB), Becker (OB), Jeff Beckwith (E), Bryan Skillstad (OT), Delbert Carlson (G), Ryan Tisthammer (G/DL), Mike Henrichs (DB), Jason Schack (LB), Travis Golden (DL) and Olsen (K).
Albion was again gaining momentum and would finish the decade with two excellent seasons.
With 20 lettermen returning in 1998, Johnson said, “We feel we have the capability of having a very good team this year.”
The Cardinals stormed out of the gate. Becker gained 153 yards in an opening 35-0 win over Lakeview and Albion rolled up 465 total yards to blast Battle Creek 41-0. The Cards scored like a pinball machine on tilt the following week, sweeping by Madison 60-13 (Johnson’s 100th career victory), then routed Central City 48-8 with Justin Risor scoring on a 56-yard run. Justin Dawson intercepted two Bison passes, returning one 55 yards for a touchdown.
After amassing 149 points in four games, Albion then totaled seven in losses to Norfolk Catholic (0-7) and Pierce (7-20). The Cardinals were undeterred, bouncing back to defeat Hartington CC (27-7) and Ainsworth (23-8), and taking a 6-2 record into postseason play.
In the district format, Albion was grouped with Pierce and Ord, while #1 Scotus and #2 Norfolk Catholic were grouped in the adjoining district. “I think we are in the second toughest district of the four in Class C1. We have two teams on paper, Ord and Pierce, that are considered to be top teams in Nebraska. The district with Norfolk Catholic and Columbus Scotus, I believe, is the toughest.”
Albion opened against Wood River, and there would be no “Frost Warning” this time. Becker ran for first-half touchdowns of 64 and 38 yards and the Cardinals raced away to a 42-6 win.
Albion then traveled to #4 Ord, dropping a hard-fought 15-8 decision to their former Central 10 Conference rival. The Cards took an 8-0 lead late in the first period on Cody Stroh’s short TD run and Dawson’s PAT pass to Chris Carder. Albion threatened again, driving inside Ord’s 10-yard line before the Chanticleers intercepted a pass on fourth-and-five. The Cardinals pushed to the 14-yard line late in the first half, but an illegal procedure penalty forced a field goal try that failed.
Ord scored on the opening possession of the second half, Albion fumbled, the Chants tallied again, and the Cardinal offense could not regain its momentum. “We played a great first half except we didn’t score enough points for the opportunities we had,” Johnson rued after the game.
Albion finished 7-3, ranked 9th in C1, and was rewarded with Mid-State All-Conference awards to Kyle Carder (S), David Hagemann (E), Dawson (DB), Becker (OB), Adam Haave (LB), Jake Spiegel (C), Golden (DL) and Tyler Rolf (DE).
Just 12 lettermen and six starters returned for the 1999 season, but Johnson felt his team had several linemen, “who could really be special players for us” and said the Cardinals, “could be a surprise team in the Mid-State Conference.”
The wins came, but not easily.
Risor and Mark Benes each scored on 55-yard runs to pace a 16-3 victory over Lakeview and Albion blanked Battle Creek 27-0, with Kyle Carder throwing a TD pass to Chris Carder and Risor rushing for two scores. Risor broke a 59-yard touchdown run for a 6-0 lead over Madison, but the Albion offense stalled the remainder of the game and the teams went to overtime when Albion blocked the PAT kick following Madison’s only touchdown. Risor capped a 168-yard night with an eight-yard TD run for the 12-6 win.
“In a game like this, you never know what little thing might make a difference. It was a good thing a few of our coaches put in a new PAT block and our players executed it well, for example,” Johnson told the News.
Good news the following week was Risor giving Albion a 12-6 halftime lead over Central City with a 54-yard TD run. The bad news was that he was injured in the end zone at the conclusion of the play and taken from the field by ambulance. Sophomore Whit Palmer stepped in to rush for 70 yards, and Kyle Carder threw for a touchdown and ran for another in a 24-12 win.
Albion was 4-0, ranked 7th in Class C1, and facing consecutive tests against C1 #1 Norfolk Catholic and #2 Pierce.
The Cardinals could muster just 169 yards against an outstanding Catholic defense in a 10-0 loss, then dropped a wild 33-21 decision to Pierce. Albion took a 14-7 lead early in the third quarter on a Carder to Carder TD pass, but sophomore Matt Herian caught a scoring pass for the Bluejays and Lucas Fischer ran for two touchdowns to put Pierce ahead 27-14. Albion trimmed the margin to six points with 1:49 to play, but Pierce recovered the onside kick and clinched the win with a final TD.
Kyle Carder sparked a 21-6 victory over Hartington CC with a 65-yard punt return touchdown and Albion squeezed by Ainsworth 12-6 in the final week of the season on Risor’s 10-yard overtime run. “It wasn’t pretty, but it was a win,” Johnson commented.
Albion faced St. Paul in the qualifying round of the playoffs, blitzing the Wildcats 46-7. Curtis Michael intercepted a St. Paul pass in the first two minutes, Risor scored and the Cards were off from there. Risor finished with 122 yards and two touchdowns, while Kyle Carder completed 8-of-13 passes and fired four touchdowns aerials.
That set up a rematch with Pierce that Kyle Carder would unfortunately miss due to illness. The Bluejays scored two minutes into the contest, pushed that lead to 14-0 on their next possession, and led 17-0 at half. Fischer bolted 52 yards for a score early in the third period and the discombobulated Cardinals never threatened in a 31-0 loss.
“We simply couldn’t get going offensively or defensively. This was the first time all year we found ourselves in an almost helpless situation,” Johnson said.
It shouldn’t detract from another excellent 7-3 season, with losses to only the top two teams in Class C1. A solid finish to a solid decade of football.
Receiving Mid-State All-Conference honors for their efforts were Kyle Carder (DB), Risor (OB), Jarod Anderson (OT), Kenny Redler (G), Greg Ransen (G), and Chris Carder (DE/OE). (Johnson was obviously correct about the potential of his linemen!)
While there were no exceptionally “high highs” in the 1990s, Albion teams combined for a solid 53-41 record and bookended the decade with consecutive seven-win seasons start and finish.
Arnie Johnson and his staff had orchestrated a rebound in 1987, brought stability and credibility back to the Cardinal program through the 90s, and produced momentum to carry into the new century.
Next, it will be the formation of Boone Central and the beginning of a surge that has carried the Cardinals to the heights of Nebraska high school football. Don’t miss the excitement, the wins – and the championships! – as we continue our Cardinal Football History series.