Panthers fall to Bison
Ultimately, it was big plays that ended the Rugby High School football team’s season. The Panthers, the No. 4 seed out of Region 3, had the unfortunate pairing with No. 1-ranked Hazen in the first round of the Class A playoffs a week ago.
The Region 4 champion Bison used a 27-point third quarter to pull away from visiting Rugby for a 48-20 win. Hazen (9-0) scored seven touchdowns and the shortest was a 23-yard run by Dominick Opp.
“You’re playing the No. 1 team in the state (and) the defending state champ,” Rugby coach Scott Grochow said. “We could’ve rolled over and died and we sure didn’t do that. We had ’em right where we wanted ’em and just had some things happen at the beginning of that second half.”
Hazen led 21-14 at the half, but scored four unanswered touchdowns in the third quarter beginning with a 30-yard run by Briar Bornemann. Soon after, Opp caught a 54-yard touchdown pass from Connor Doll. The average scoring length of the Bison’s touchdowns was 45 yards.
“They have a lot of very good, quality people,” Grochow said. “Up front, they do a very good job and at the running back spots. They actually have three good running backs, but they only really run two of ’em. And the quarterback runs the ball very well, so they’re so multifaceted. You have to be very, very disciplined and you gotta tackle really well and there was a few times we did and a few times we didn’t.”
Bornemann had touchdown runs of 55, 42 and 30 yards and finished with a game-high 208 yards on just 13 carries. Teammate Nate Lientz had nine carries for 100 yards.
Lientz scampered 70 yards on the first play from scrimmage and two plays later Bornemann’s longest touchdown followed.
Rugby junior quarterback Brad Heidlebaugh kept the Panthers (4-5) in the game with a 3-yard touchdown run in the first quarter and a 4-yard score before the half. Heidlebaugh found classmate Eric Hooker in the fourth quarter on an 11-yard pass for the Panthers’ only other touchdown.
“After that first two series of the first half and in the second half we just kind of got behind and we kind of got in a little panic mode, maybe,” Grochow said, “and we just didn’t get going what we wanted to get going again, and they’re just very quality all around and they got great depth.”
Heidlebaugh finished 17 of 34 for 178 yards. The Panthers pushed the Hazen defense more than the Bison are used to. Entering the playoffs, Hazen was tied with Oakes for allowing a Class A low of 7.1 points per game.
The outlook is strong for the Panthers, who lose six seniors but will return Heidlebaugh and a core of playmakers. Three linemen will graduate along with a pair of receivers and a running back. Senior receiver Chris Hamilton is the biggest loss based on offensive production after leading the team with nearly 600 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
“We got a lot of work to do,” Grochow said. “The kids know they got work to do in the offseason. If they do that I think there’s some great kids coming back.”
Among the top returners are a handful underclassmen plagued by injuries this season. Tanner Bernhardt missed the final game, and the junior was the team’s second best rusher (372 yards) and second best receiver (256). Classmate Reid Mundahl, a two-way lineman, went down early in the Hazen game, and junior tight end/linebacker Zach Miller is recovering from knee surgery.
Heidlebaugh led the team with more than 400 rushing yards and 1,184 passing yards.
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