Beginning the initial decade of the 2000s, the Cardinals registered the final season of Albion High School football competition. Boone Central – the school formed by the Albion/Petersburg merger – would kick off the 21st century one year later.
To say the conclusion and new start were successful would be a definite understatement. In fact, the 2000-2004 seasons might well be the best five-year run in the history of the Cardinal program.
Yes, it was that good.
Arnie Johnson began his 13th season at Albion in 2000 with a 111-84-1 overall coaching record (including 8 years at Howells). While just eight seniors and 13 lettermen returned from the 7-3 1999 Card squad, Johnson and his charges were undeterred.
Johnson told the Albion News preseason, “We feel we have some talented players who can step in and get the job done. Our quickness will have to carry us this year, because we lost a lot of size from last year’s team. We have a lot of holes to fill on the line of scrimmage. Our season hinges on our ability to move some of the players into spots they are not now playing, but where we need them.”
The position chess would prove successful, although Albion suffered a 3-0 loss to Lakeview in the season opener. From that point, the Cardinals reeled off eight straight victories by an average score of 34-7.
That run started with a 38-14 victory over Central City. Chris Carder blocked a punt, Albion recovering on the Bison four-yard line, and Josh Inman scored. Carder added an interception to set up Inman’s second TD and, before the end of the first quarter, Adam Flanagan picked up a Central City fumble and dashed 42 yards for a touchdown. The Cards were off and running.
The biggest win of the season was probably a 14-7 grinder over #7 Scotus. Albion shocked the ‘Rocks early as Whit Palmer rumbled 55 yards to paydirt with a screen pass from Curtis Michael. The Cards went up 14-0 on a quarterback sneak and Scotus answered with a 47-yard scoring sprint by Jeff Kosch to make it 14-7 at halftime. The second half was the proverbial ‘defensive slugfest,’ as both teams were repeatedly turned away from the end zone.
After the contest Johnson praised, “Coach Dan Zoucha and the offensive line have made amazing improvements since our first game. Scott Levander, Nick Krohn, Scott Reinhart, Scott Brengelman, Adam Flanagan, Chris Carder, Travis Stevenson and Les Hinze did a fantastic job on the line of scrimmage. Our team is so much more poised. This was a great win! Our team’s execution and intensity were at a high level. It was obvious that the team believed we win from the beginning even though on paper it didn’t look good – Albion 0, Lakeview 3; Lakeview 7, Scotus 42.”
Albion took its 8-1 record and a #6 state ranking into playoff action against Broken Bow.
The Cardinals first got on the scoreboard in unique fashion. After taking advantage of a 14-yard punt in the first quarter, Albion attempted a field goal. The snap sailed over the head of holder Eric Schack, who calmly ran the ball down and fired a touchdown pass to Hinze. The defense dominated and Hinze caught a second TD pass in the final period to seal a 14-0 win.
The state quarterfinal was held at Crofton in the most miserable weather imaginable. Sleet, snow, plunging temperatures and strong winds produced terrible playing conditions and the host Warriors – who had upset 8-1 Chadron in the first round – took advantage of four Albion turnovers in a 36-0 whitewash.
“We have to be honest and say we just didn’t play well. We did a lot of things wrong that weren’t indicative of the way we played for most of the season. This particular game wasn’t good, but our season as a whole was fantastic,” Johnson told the News.
Eight Cards – Levander (OL), Krohn (OL), Palmer (RB), Hinze (E), Carder (DE), Flanagan (DL), Inman (LB) and Michael (DB) – were awarded C1-8 All-District honors.
A 9-2 record to start the 2000s and, believe it or not, the worst record of the first half of the decade.
When speaking of new beginnings – 2001 had it all. A new school. A new century. And the first playoff state championship in the history of the Cardinal football program.
The first Boone Central team included four Albion All-District players as the core of a large contingent of seniors and lettermen. Petersburg joined the merger following a banner 9-2 season in Class D2, where Cole Henn had rushed for 146 yards per game and scored 26 touchdowns. The squad included 18 experienced seniors and 16 juniors.
The coaching staff was also melded together from the two schools, which helped provide Johnson with information on the Petersburg players and the roles they could fill.
Prior to the season, Johnson commented, “With the amount of talented players and the amount of quality leadership we have coming back from the two schools, we have the chance of fielding another quality team. We feel we’ll be more balanced. Our line and our backs should be capable of making some big plays. The Petersburg kids will bring a lot to the game. Yes, we have a lot of talent, but I’d rather have people come see what we have. The players may surprise us all.”
The title campaign may well have been a surprise to many.
After all, how many times have you seen or heard about school mergers getting off to rocky starts? At best, it normally takes several years to blend together and become cohesive. A state championship in the first season of a merger? Huh.
I’ve actually always believed the 2001 football season was about more than just an athletic championship. That was certainly important, and the focus of the coaches and players. But it was so much more.
Planning for the merger had not been especially rancorous, but there had been debates and disagreements, including the retention of Cardinals as the mascot. In many ways, the 2001 success of its student-athletes bonded the school and its communities into the successful and vibrant entity that thrives 20 years later.
I vividly recall that fall. At the beginning of the campaign, there were splashes of Petersburg Pirate purple among the red sweatshirts and jackets in the grandstand. As the wins mounted, I noticed less and less purple. By the playoff run and state championship game, it was solid Big Red!
Not every week was dominant, and there was a loss along the way. But when the championship trophy was lifted in Memorial Stadium, Boone Central and Cardinal pride was alive and strong.
After beginning 2-0, Boone Central gave a glimpse of the future with a gritty 16-7 victory over Scotus. The Shamrocks struck first and Palmer answered with a 56-yard TD ramble. Inman’s second-period touchdown and fourth-quarter field goal were all the Cardinal defense needed from there.
“We took a step towards becoming a very good football team. At this point in the season, this was a great win,” Johnson praised.
Kyle Bygland started a 21-7 victory over Ord with an 88-yard kickoff return touchdown and Boone Central rolled by Twin River, O’Neill and West Holt by a combined tally of 124-6 to take a 7-0 record into the home finale against unbeaten and highly-ranked Pierce.
The Bluejays would give Boone Central its only blemish in a competitive 16-14 contest, in which future Husker star Matt Herian caught a touchdown pass and intercepted a last-ditch effort by the Cardinals.
Boone Central, with a playoff berth clinched, may have lacked a bit of focus the following week, but rallied from a 13-12 deficit after three quarters of play to win 20-13. Palmer returned a Wildcat interception for a touchdown and Ben Thieman passed to Joey Imus for the two-point conversion.
“We were fortunate to win,” was Johnson’s only comment. But win they did and took an 8-1 mark into the playoffs.
Boone Central handled Chadron 24-0 in the first round, then made the long trek northwest to face a tough, physical Valentine squad in unseasonable 90-plus degree heat. It was survival of the fittest, with the Cardinals left standing at the end. BC capitalized on a Reinhart interception with Henn’s six-yard touchdown run and Roger Tisthammer added an eight-yard TD in the second quarter. Valentine pulled within a touchdown on Blake Beebout’s 14-yard run and, much like in the earlier Scotus game, the Cardinal defense took over from there. “It was a very physical game. We had some chances to put them away, but Valentine did a good job of slowing us down,” Johnson noted.
Albion hosted the C1 state semifinal and a boisterous crowd witnessed the fulfillment of dreams – a 21-7 win over Fillmore Central and a trip to Lincoln’s Memorial Stadium! It was another headknocker, again keyed by the Cardinal defense. You can find many more details on the contest in the Most Memorable Cardinal Football Games series in the June 3 edition of the Albion News and at albionnewsonline.com.
The headline in the Albion News the following week told the final tale of a remarkable campaign – ‘Cardinals pull out amazing state title win.’
Indeed. Amazing win. Amazing season. Amazing team.
For much of the game, Boone Central was a bit like a prize fighter holding on at the ropes. The Card offense could produce only Tisthammer’s touchdown run with a Jason Krohn option pitch and trailed Pierce, without an injured Herian, 7-6 until Inman’s late field goal. At a glance, the 9-7 final score does not do justice to the twists and turns, ups and downs of a championship donnybrook. A four-point turnaround from the regular season – just enough!
Again, game details are available in the April 22 edition of the Albion News (Most Memorable Cardinal Football Games) and at albionnewsonline.com.
With that 2001 statement, it didn’t take Class C1 coaches, players and fans long to realize there was a new bully on the block. And the Cardinals did not let up.
Although few starters returned in 2002, a core led by All-State fullback/linebacker Josh Inman and All-District selections Joey Imus, Lee Daniels, Brandon Borer and Kyle Bygland led talented new players to another outstanding season.
An undefeated regular season, in fact.
Boone Central rolled to an 8-0 record, then thrashed St. Paul 30-6 in the qualifying round of the state playoffs.
The following round featured an inspired effort against #1 ranked Fillmore Central for the second straight season. The Panthers held a 14-6 third-quarter lead before Albion tied on Scott Kunzman’s TD run and Inman’s two-point conversion. Craig Gragert made a late-game interception to set up a scoring drive finished by Inman, and the Cardinals had the upset!
Boone Central followed with a tough 13-2 decision over Hastings St. Cecelia in the quarterfinal round, as Inman raced 33 yards for a clinching fourth-quarter touchdown.
The Cardinals toted an 11-0 record to Gothenburg, looking for a second straight trip to the C1 championship game, but fell flat on their trip west. Boone Central had a woefully slow start, falling behind 21-0 as Swede standout Blake Houchin passed and ran for scores. Inman’s short TD and a 23-yard touchdown pass from Kunzman to Imus pulled BC within seven at halftime, but the Cards’ tanks seemed empty following intermission. Houchin added two more touchdown passes and the Boone Central offense could not find any traction in a 34-14 loss.
“We showed a lot of character coming back from a 21-point deficit to make it a game at halftime. We lost the momentum we had gained on their drive in the third quarter,” Johnson said.
Yes, state semifinal losses are bitter pills to swallow, but Boone Central had fashioned a 23-2 record in its first two seasons and quickly established itself as a true state gridiron power.
All-District honors were awarded to Bygland (OB), Imus (E), Daniels (OL), Borer (OL), Inman (LB), Tom Krohn (LB), Hinze (DL), Brandon Struebing (DL), Kunzman (DB) and Aaron Weeder (DB). Inman earned All-State recognition for the second straight year.
If opponents thought a Cardinal downturn was at hand, they were surely disappointed in 2003.
With seventeen lettermen, Boone Central again recorded a perfect 8-0 regular season record, outscoring opponents 309-41 (39-5 avg. game score). An 18-0 win over Centennial was the narrowest margin of victory, as BC scored 34 or more points in seven of eight contests, recorded three shutouts and allowed an opponent into double figures just once. Whew!
(I noted in the wrapup of the 1990s that Central City might want to plead with the NSAA to be removed from the Cardinal schedule. No such luck. Boone Central stampeded the Bison 62-6, which brought the cumulative score of the past two seasons to a mindnumbing 138-6).
The roll continued in the first round of playoff action with a 35-6 win over Grand Island Central Catholic.
The #3 Cardinals then faced Fillmore Central for the third straight time in the playoffs. Unfortunately, the third time was the charm for the talented Panthers.
In another very physical contest, Fillmore Central took a 7-0 first-half lead on an early touchdown pass. The Cardinals made a valiant goal line stand after fumbling and drove to the Panther four-yard line late in the half before a fourth-down pass from Tyler Shotkoski to Imus fell incomplete.
BC stopped two Fillmore Central runs from inside the one-yard line to deny a 74-yard, 16-play drive that took over 10 minutes of the third quarter, but fatigue may have caught up with the Cards from there. Panther standout Mike Brower rambled 44 yards for a touchdown and Fillmore Central got a late score on a reverse pass to cap a 20-0 decision.
“We did not play a fantastic game, but I do not question the effort our team gave. I give credit to Fillmore Central for keeping the pressure on us throughout the game. They are a very good team. That drive to start the third quarter really hurt us,” Johnson told reporters.
The Cardinal coach also added, “Our players showed a lot of class in the loss. It’s easy to show composure when you win – the communities of Albion and Petersburg have a team that also shows it in a loss.”
Befitting another dominant season, Imus, Dan Presiter, Trevor Spiegel, Shotkoski, Jason Zabka, Brock Michael, Tom Krohn, Derek Nelson, Jason Krohn and Seth Flanagan were All-District selections, concluding a 9-1 season that made Boone Central 32-3 in three years, and the Cardinal program 41-5 in the first four seasons of the decade.
Boone Central had certainly built momentum, and ‘Big Mo’ was fully evident in 2004.
While the 2001 team and its state championship may have been a bit of a surprise, the ‘04 Cardinals carried high expectations, including at least the thought that this could be another title year.
The Cardinals returned 22 lettermen, with a deep and experienced senior class that included three returning All-District players.
“We have some size and quickness that should allow us to field a quality team. We hope to be the type of team that can compete with the other top teams in C1,” Johnson noted preseason. Boone Central had come to expect no less.
The Cardinals did have a bit of a harrowing opener against a quality Lakeview team. Boone Central trailed 21-20 with little more than one minute to play when the News reported, “Shotkoski scampered 35 yards on a sideline-to-sideline scramble to the Viking 14-yard line and halfback Jason Zabka bolted into the end zone on the following play.” Zabka added the two-point conversion and BC had a dramatic 28-21 win.
The season’s third week featured Class C1’s marquee matchup – Boone Central traveling to Norfolk to face #1 Norfolk Catholic. It was a stunning performance in a classic high school football game.
The Albion News report said, “Senior running back Jason Zabka ran for three touchdowns and passed for a fourth to lead the undefeated Cardinals to a 33-17 victory over Class C1’s top-ranked team before an enthusiastic, near-capacity crowd.” Once again, this game was featured in the Most Memorable Cardinal Football Games series, found in the May 27 edition of the News and at albionnewsonline.com.
Boone Central steamrolled it’s final four opponents 247-14, then clobbered Minden 49-14 in the qualifying playoff round. (A quick note, sacrificial lamb Central City again fell to the Cards, 52-2, making the three-year total 190-8. Gulp.)
The Boone Central domination continued. The News summed up a first round playoff win with this – “Big play players make big plays to win big games – and Boone Central senior Jason Zabka certainly came up big in the Cardinals’ 31-8 playoff victory over Hastings St. Cecelia at the Albion athletic field. Zabka rushed for two touchdowns, caught a third and threw for yet another, as well as contributing several key defensive stops.”
A pair of 10-0 teams – Boone Central and Kearney Catholic – squared off in the quarterfinal at Albion. It was more Zabka and more Cardinals, according to the Albion News account, “Boone Central was the more physical team, faster team and, simply, the better team. The Cardinals hit the visitors from all angles and, from early on, Kearney Catholic wasn’t sure which way to turn next. Catholic got doses of Boone Central halfback Jason Zabka running right, running left and running up the middle – and when they looked up, there he was on defense as well, intercepting three first-half passes. When the Stars set their sights on stopping the talented Cardinal, they were faced with quarterback Tyler Shotkoski’s nimble runs and accurate passes, long gainers by speedsters Matt Temme and Bryant Borer, and defensive havoc led by seniors Thomas Wells and Craig Sallach.” Sounds like Boone Central did well, huh?
The Cards finished with a 351-133 advantage in rushing yardage and built a 28-0 lead through three quarters of a 28-14 victory.
Boone Central had a slow start in another home contest – the C1 state semifinal – but punched its second trip to Lincoln and the state championship game with an eventual 41-14 victory over Gordon. The visitors took a 7-0 lead before Flanagan forced a fumble on a sack and Shotkoski hooked up with Greg Luettel for a 51-yard touchdown pass. Luettel’s interception led to a 58-yard scoring dash by Zabka and the Card flash later expanded the Boone Central lead to 28-14 with a 20-yard run. Gordon hung around until, as the News accounted, “On fourth down from the 13, Shotkoski patiently waited for Luettel to come open at the goal line and drilled his third touchdown pass of the first half with :26 remaining.” That put the Cardinals up 34-14 and well on their way to the state capital.
As Cardinal fans everywhere know, there would be no storybook ending to the 2004 season, no second state championship in the Cardinal trophy case.
Class C1 football fans were treated to the anticipated rematch at Memorial Stadium, Boone Central facing Mid-State Conference rival Norfolk Catholic.
There was little doubt these were the two best teams in the class in 2004 and it was fitting that they would decide the championship.
In another taut thriller between the two titans, Zabka struck first as reported, “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 Cardinals missed the PAT and Catholic answered that first-quarter score with a 60-yard, 14-play drive led by All-State quarterback Tyler Sudbeck. His nine-yard scoring pass to Ricky Distefano tied the score and the Knights’ PAT attempt banged off the crossbar.
Zabka’s halfback pass to Matt Temme put Boone Central in scoring position late in the first half and the senior standout scored his second touchdown :19 prior to intermission. Nick Christo’s PAT gave BC a 13-6 halftime edge.
Norfolk Catholic took advantage of field position in the third period and knotted the score again when Coach Jeff Bellar went to his bag of tricks on fourth down. The Albion News described, “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.” Catholic scored two plays later and added the PAT – 13-13.
The game was a defensive stalemate in the fourth period until Sudbeck completed three passes, carrying the Knights to the Boone Central 21-yard line with :14 to play. 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 seconds to play.”
Norfolk Catholic recovered an errant Cardinal pitch on the final kickoff in the end zone for a meaningless score and a 26-13 final that did not indicate the razor-thin difference between the two teams.
It was certainly heartbreaking for the proud Cardinal football program. After 623 minutes, 55 seconds of football in 2004, with a state championship within grasp, a tipped pass touchdown dashing that dream is a cruel fate.
It does not deter from the accomplishments of that 2004 team, however. Those Cardinals are certainly one of the finest squads ever to wear the red and white in Albion.
And it doesn’t deter from an amazing five-year stretch of football at Albion/Boone Central. A run of 53-6 to start the new decade, including a 44-4 record in the first years of a new school.
The best five-year stretch in the history of Cardinal football?
Boone Central/Newman Grove had a wonderful three-year run (35-3) culminated by the 2014 state championship, and you might argue that William E. Putman’s five-year streak of success from 1930-34 (32-4-4) would be the equal.
But, in the end, for five consecutive seasons of high-level success, 2000-2004 is pretty tough to beat.