Albion/Boone Central Football History Series: Major change, return to Lincoln for Cards

Joe Flanagan

Here we are. Ready to take the final steps of our journey through the history of Cardinal football.
What a trip it’s been!
We’ve relived the advent of football at Albion High School in 1920. We’ve encountered the coaches and personalities that helped shape our Cardinal passion, and enjoyed the exploits of so many great players. There have been undefeated seasons … and winless seasons. Championships … and near misses. Thrills and joy … along with gut-wrenching heartbreak. Never a dull moment.
The 2015 season would represent the biggest change in Cardinal football since the program hopped, skipped and jumped from the original Central Conference to the LouPlatte, then the Mid-State.
Arnie Johnson ended his 36 year high school coaching career following Boone Central/Newman Grove’s 54-14 victory over Ashland-Greenwood in the 2014 Class C1 state championship game. What a career it had been.
Johnson had directed Cardinal football at Albion and Boone Central for 28 seasons, by far the longest-tenured head coach in Cardinal history. He finished his career with an overall 239-122-1 record, including 198-90 at Albion/Boone Central, the highest win total in Card history by a large margin. There had been two state titles in four finals appearances, unprecedented heights for the program.
It was a big void to fill, but Boone Central was fortunate to find an outstanding replacement in Mark Hudson, who had fashioned a 73-39 record in 12 seasons at Ravenna.
I remember talking to friend and fellow reporter Bob Jensen, publisher of Huskerland Prep, following Hudson’s arrival. “Mark is a good man,” Jensen stated simply.
A good football coach, as well.
Taking over a program fresh off two state finals appearances in three years and and a resounding championship victory at a rural-based high school can be very challenging. Those who have lived in small towns realize numbers and talent are not a constant, but a revolving cycle.
Hudson acknowledged there could be “a few bumps in the road” as Boone Central players adjusted to a new head coach, but added, “Coach Johnson and I share a lot of the same philosophies, and our returning upperclassmen are eager for the next chapter.” Johnson’s staff returned to help provide continuity for the program.
There was still the issue of replacing a decorated graduate class, including All-State standouts Wyatt Mazour, Michael Lipker, Zac Glidden and Travis Kennedy. While All-State linebacker Keaton Henry would be back in 2015, along with seasoned starters such as Kyle Kramer, Scott Ketteler, Jacob Krings and Isaac Sullivan, many younger players were needed to fill the gaps.
No players had bigger shoes to fill than the new Boone Central/Newman Grove signal-callers, who would take the reins after five straight seasons of a Mazour delighting fans and tormenting opponents. Senior Blaine Kennedy and sophomore Dylan Gentrup would prove to do admirable duty.
BCNG had the misfortune of opening against Class C1 #2 Scotus and dropped a 31-14 decision at Columbus. The Cardinals quickly found their footing however – and how!
Boone Central/Newman Grove reeled off seven consecutive victories, beginning with a 59-34 romp over Lakeview. The Albion News account read, “Senior all-stater Keaton Henry, normally a tight end, took snaps at running back, as well, romping and stomping through the Viking defense for 113 yards and four touchdowns. First-year starting quarterback Blaine Kennedy had a second straight strong performance, completing 9-of-16 aerials for 236 yards and four scores.”
BCNG followed by blitzing North Bend Central, then pitched consecutive shutouts over GICC (42-0) and West Point-Beemer (56-0). The Cardinals were back in the C1 Top 10 ratings (#7) and flew by #5 Pierce 49-28. After Bluejay Austin Freeman returned the opening kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown, it was Boone Central/Newman Grove that ate up turf – 431 rushing yards while limiting Pierce to just 88. Speedy Card senior Damian Backus was a wisp of smoke, gaining 237 yards on just 15 carries, including touchdowns of 24 and 45 yards and another 78 yard sprint that set up a score. Hudson commented after the game, “We knew we’d get some answers one way or another about our team and it turns out to be what we secretly hoped was the case – they needed a challenge to gauge their true progress.”
BCNG added two more shutouts over Madison (42-0) and Wayne (38-0) before nemesis and C1 #1 Norfolk Catholic halted the Cardinal roll with a 42-14 victory.
Boone Central/Newman Grove was the #13 C1 seed in the postseason, but it was a brief appearance by the defending champs. On a soggy night in southeastern Nebraska, the News reported, “On a night of steady rainfall, which increased in intensity during the second half, undefeated Wilber-Clatonia slipped and slid to just enough success to score a 9-6 victory over the defending Class C1 state champion Cardinals.”
Wilber-Clatonia stacked its defense against the BCNG ground game and the Cards could not get their air attack to take flight. Kennedy, who had passed for over 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns with just 3 interceptions in the regular season, suffered a finger injury early and could muster just 38 yards through the air. “Normally, when a team has loaded the box, we get the ball to our receivers. The weather, an injury and Wilber’s execution made that more difficult than usual. It was frustrating to say the least,” Hudson conceded.
Of the one-and-done finish to a fine 7-3 season, Hudson said, “The hardest part, personally, is that I didn’t get more time to coach the seniors. They are really a phenomenal bunch of young men.”
Seniors Henry, Kennedy, Jacob Krings and Joe O’Brien were All-District selections. Henry was a repeat All-State choice, joined by O’Brien in several publications.
It was evident prior to the 2016 season that Boone Central/Newman Grove would face some real challenges, with just two starters returning on each side of the football. The Cardinals were still the Cardinals, however.
Based on previous success, BCNG was again ranked and got off to a great start by nipping Pierce 27-21 in a preseason Top 10 battle. The excitement continued the following week in a wild 41-37 shootout win over Wayne. The teams combined for more than 1,000 yards total offense and 42 first downs in a game that kept fans on the edges of their seats until BCNG recovered a final onside kick attempt. “We survived!” Hudson exclaimed.
The magic ran out in week three as O’Neill, which would be the eventual C1 state champion, blanked the Cards 38-0. That was followed by a 41-0 loss to Norfolk Catholic called at halftime by a lengthy lightning delay.
The Albion News headline read “Heartbreak” the next week, with Lakeview edging BCNG 22-21 in overtime. After the teams played to a 14-14 stalemate in regulation, BCNG scored on its initial overtime possession. Lakeview matched that touchdown, leading Viking coach Kurt Frenzen to play the role of ‘riverboat gambler.’ Frenzen rolled the dice with a win-or-lose two-point conversion attempt and came up the victor when Jaden Johnson found Layne Egger open in the corner of the end zone.
With its season teetering on edge, Boone Central/Newman Grove stunned #10 Ord 43-22, then defeated Adams Central 30-6 to set up a pivotal district contest against Scotus.
The Shamrocks tallied a pair of touchdowns in the final two minutes of the first half, extending a 14-10 lead to 28-10, and scored a 49-17 victory that knocked BCNG from playoff contention. Playing for pride, the Cardinals closed the 5-4 season with a 35-13 victory over G.I. Central Catholic.
It marked the end of the longest consecutive playoff streak in Cardinal history, 18 years, (1998-2015). Hudson later noted, “I’m proud of the kids and disappointed we didn’t qualify for the playoffs for the first time in a long time. But, when they changed to only 16 teams instead of 32 two years ago, it got a lot more difficult. A 5-4 record was respectable with the numbers and experience we returned and the schedule we played.”
Portending things to come, junior Dylan Gentrup recorded a 1,000/1,000 season, rushing for 1,060 yards and passing for 1,111, and was an All-District selection with senior Dalton Wagner, and juniors Levi Krueger and Cody Nelson.
Boone Central/Newman Grove entered the 2017 campaign with 15 lettermen, eight returning starters on each side of the ball, and plenty of optimism for a return to the postseason.
The Cardinals got off to a flying start, rattling off 42 straight points in a 42-20 victory over Pierce as Gentrup totaled 271 yards and five touchdowns. BCNG came up short in a second straight ‘shootout’ with Wayne, however. In a crazy 34-30 loss, the Cards gave up not one, but two, Blue Devil kickoff return touchdowns. Wayne turned the ball over four times and committed 13 penalties, but still prevailed on a 35-yard Beau Bowers TD pass with 1:39 to play.
BCNG took out its frustrations with a 42-0 whitewash of defending C1 champion O’Neill, but it was one step forward, one step back when Norfolk Catholic came to town. The News accounted, “Before the first lightning strike Friday night, Norfolk Catholic produced several big-play bolts of its own to spark a 48-35 victory over BCNG in Albion. After a thunderstorm featuring thunder, lightning, heavy rain and hail suspended play for 55 minutes, the Knights capped their wild win with two more long scoring strikes that staved off BCNG’s fourth-quarter rally efforts.”
Boone Central/Newman Grove was undaunted by the defeat and its 2-2 record, proceeding to blast Lakeview (35-0), Ord (43-15), Adams Central (49-7), Scotus (36-19) and GICC (43-0). The win at Scotus clinched a return to the playoffs and came in somewhat bizarre fashion. An overzealous officiating crew threw a virtual blizzard of yellow flags. The two teams were whistled 30 – thirty! – times for 260 yards, with BCNG actually called for three different penalties on one play.
What’s the old adage, “Just make it to the postseason and anything can happen?”
Boone Central/Newman Grove’s 7-2 record did not draw much notice in the C1 playoff field, but the Cardinals were on the proverbial roll, and ‘Big Mo’ can be a powerful force.
BCNG rode Gentrup’s 309 total yards and three touchdowns, along with a stifling defensive effort, to a 40-3 victory over Auburn in the opening round, then headed to Omaha for a rare contest against Boys Town.
Boys Town, as always, boasted some exceptionally athletic, quick, fast playmakers on a team that averaged 40 points per game in ten straight regular-season victories. That quickness actually hampered BCNG’s offense more than its defense, but the Cardinals lassoed the potent Cowboy attack, allowing just 113 total yards in a 19-9 victory. “Our defense played maybe the best game of the year. Our players fought for four quarters and did a great job,” Hudson praised.
Boone Central/Newman Grove clung to a 12-9 lead late in the third quarter when the Cardinals gained good field position and drove to the Boys Town one-yard line in seven plays. On 4th down, the News described the next pivotal snap, “The play of the game, and maybe BCNG’s play of the year, followed. Gentrup rolled to his right, and rolled and rolled. Less than two yards from the sideline, with a pair of Cowboy defenders in his face, the Card senior lofted a pass that covered approximately 40 yards to the opposite side of the field, where two Cardinal receivers were wide open. Ethan Dozler caught the lofty aerial at the two-yard line and stepped into the end zone to stun Boys Town and fans of both teams.”
Does that sound just a bit like a 2014 4th down play, when a Cardinal quarterback rolled, rolled and rolled some more before throwing a key completion in a crucial playoff victory over Norfolk Catholic? Yes, difference-makers make a difference when a difference is needed.
Boone Central/Newman Grove was left with two familiar foes to close out the season. The Cardinals defeated another playoff dark horse, Pierce, 42-25 to earn the program’s fifth state finals appearance. The surging 7-4 Bluejays, with seven wins in nine games, simply could not corral BCNG’s ‘difference-maker.’ Gentrup passed for 207 yards and three touchdowns, rushed for 62 yards and a pair of scores, and made perhaps his biggest play of the game on defense by dropping Pierce halfback Collin Tinker for a three-yard loss on 4th-and-goal with BCNG nursing a 27-19 lead.
Hudson was effusive in his praise following the game, “I’m very proud of this bunch and very honored to be their coach. It doesn’t hurt to have one of the best – maybe the best – playmaker in Class C1 football. You’ve got to let #7 be #7. When you’ve got the best playmaker in C1, it doesn’t matter what play you call, because he’s going to get it done.”
Respected Pierce coach Mark Brahmer chimed in, “We saw a lot of great quarterbacks this year – more good quarterbacks than I’ve ever seen in one year. Gentrup is the best quarterback, I think, in C1, and maybe one of the better ones I’ve seen in all my years.”
(Words Arnie Johnson could have spoken several times, as well. Mazour. Mazour. Kennedy. Gentrup. Wow! What a stretch of quarterback play at Boone Central 2010-2017!)
Waiting for the 10-2 Cardinals in Memorial Stadium was (of course!) undefeated and #1 Norfolk Catholic. Unfortunately, so were stiff winds that played a major factor in the pass and kick games. With a fierce Catholic defense stifling the Cardinal ground game, facing the swirling winds and relentless Knight pressure, Gentrup could connect on only 4-of-18 aerials for 38 yards. BCNG committed four turnovers and Dylan Kautz zipped for 193 yards in a 35-0 Catholic victory.
Hudson commented, “It was a great run. I wish we would have had better conditions and played better. But Norfolk Catholic is a very good football team. This was a great group of young men.”
Seniors Gentrup, Krueger, Nelson, Jessie Sullivan, Michael Murcek and Caden Ranslem, and juniors Will Frey and Jon Merten were All-District selections. Gentrup, Sullivan and Krueger were each chosen All-State in at least one state publication, and Gentrup was the C1 honorary captain in the Omaha World-Herald.
Hudson, now 95-49 in his career and 22-10 at Boone Central, had guided the Cardinals to the state championship game in just his third season at the school. Pretty heady stuff.
Team numbers had begun to decline, but BCNG still returned five offensive and six defensive starters in 2018. Needing to blend in young players and lacking depth, it would prove to be a seesaw season.
Beginning with an upswing, Boone Central/Newman Grove topped O’Neill 22-14 in the season opener, but could not contain Ord All-State quarterback Jesse Ulrich as eventual state champion Ord throttled the Cardinals 41-13. BCNG then dropped a frustrating 21-13 decision to C1 #3 Lakeview despite gaining 127 more yards and 10 more first downs than the Vikings.
The Cards bounced back to defeat Arlington 35-6 and Logan View/Scribner-Snyder 45-14 before West Point-Beemer blanked BCNG 14-0 in a key district contest. “Tough loss. The kids played really inspired football in the second half though – especially on defense. I’m proud the boys played hard until the end,” Hudson said. The water got even deeper the following week, as #1 Aurora – in the Huskies first C1 season after dropping from Class B – rolled up a 48-0 halftime lead and whipped BCNG 48-7.
Back up the seesaw went, Boone Central/Newman Grove evening its record at 4-4 with a 23-6 win over Wayne. Hudson noted, “Good win – it was needed. Getting to 4-4 with the schedule, injuries and adversity this year is a real testament to these seniors and how they persevered. I’m very proud of them.”
C1 #2 Pierce ended Boone Central/Newman Grove’s season with a 49-7 decision, scoring on seven of eight possessions. It concluded a schedule that included #1 Aurora, #2 Pierce, #4 Ord and #5 Lakeview, along with 7-2 playoff qualifier West Point-Beemer. Not for the timid.
Reflecting the talents and determination of that 4-5 squad, Brenden Beierman, Will Frey, Jon Merten, Weston Choat and Ethan Dozler were selected All-District.
Boone Central/Newman Grove did return four offensive starters and five defensive starters in 2019, but the overall squad would be very young with numbers on the low side once again. In fact, the Cardinals had only four seniors – a number almost unheard of in Class C1 football! The schedule? Once again daunting, featuring preseason #1 Aurora, #2 Pierce, #5 Ord and #9 Lakeview.
Predictably, there were struggles. O’Neill edged BCNG 20-13 in a crazy opener played over two days due to heavy thunderstorms halting play Friday night. The Cardinals pushed Ord, but fell 37-20 when a potential 17-14 dogfight turned into a 24-7 Chanticleer lead on an Ord goal line stand and subsequent touchdown run by Tommy Stevens. BCNG stunned Lakeview the following week, taking a 6-0 lead on an early 72-yard TD strike from Braden Benes to Dylan Korth. The Vikings reeled off 28 straight points, however, dropping the Cards to 0-3.
BCNG picked up much-needed back-to-back wins, beginning with a 7-6 squeeker over Arlington. Trailing 6-0 in the fourth quarter, Benes hit Blaine Young for gains of 17 and 14 yards and Carsten Bird for 20, then scooted around end on a nine-yard touchdown sprint. Ryan Kramer then booted the winning point. BCNG knocked off Logan View/Scribner-Snyder 28-21, with Hudson confessing, “I’m not sure how we pulled that one out, but a win is a win. They won every statistical battle, including looking better in pads getting off the bus than us. We didn’t dominate, but we were opportunistic and scrappy.”
It only got more difficult from there. West Point-Beemer scored 21 second-quarter points to spark a 28-13 victory. Aurora turned a 7-0 lead into a 27-7 halftime bulge in 6:59 and prevailed 41-7. Playoff-bound Wayne raced to a 28-10 lead and shot the Cards down 42-24, and #2 Pierce ended the 2-7 campaign by running, running and running some more in a 55-20 decision.
Hudson praised the tenacity of his troops following the season, “We only had four seniors, but they were a very courageous bunch. Many times they knew they were up against a team bigger and stronger than they were, and they went in with a warrior mentality and fought hard – even after the game was decided. They were good leaders in that regard. We played hard – we just weren’t as big and strong as pretty much every team we played. Some of that might just be being young and some might be a need to find more lifting opportunities to keep up with our opponents.”
Seniors Dylan Korth, Blaine Young and Chase Thieman, and junior Ryan Kramer, were selected to the C1-3 All-District team.
So, there you have it. One hundred seasons of Cardinal football. Bookended by seasons of 2-4-1 in 1920 and 2-7 in 2020.
In ways, those seasons do, and don’t, tell the story of football at Albion and Boone Central. There were many more bright, successful seasons during these past 100 years than dreary ones. By the end of their first decade, the Cardinals had produced their first undefeated season. In the past decade, there were state finals appearances and a championship. Throughout the years, highs and lows, but always a common theme – Cardinal teams, win or lose, would give great effort and fight back – especially after tough times!
That continues today.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this 100 year gridiron journey as much as I have. I know there will be much more great Cardinal football in the years ahead, as well.
Get ready!