Tears flooded the eyes of Tabor football coach Mike Gardner as he walked toward the man he had spent the previous three hours trying desperately to beat.
And when he reached Friends coach Monty Lewis at the middle of the field at Adair-Austin Stadium on Saturday afternoon, Gardner couldn’t contain his emotions.
Everywhere on the field were emotional remnants of Tabor’s 20-19 victory. Two teams ranked in the NAIA’s top 15 had just battled to a near draw — one more missed extra-point kick proving to be the difference — and players from each side let their emotions spill out.
But none more than the two commanders at midfield.
“I probably would have been the same way had we won,” Lewis said of Gardner’s tears. “You want to win so badly, but you feel for the other guy. I told him I completely understood. There are a lot of other coaches we’d rather beat than each other.”
Lewis and Gardner have spent the better part of their coaching careers admiring each other from afar. After coaching against one another as assistants, the pair of friends finally had the opportunity as head coaches to duel their best squads against one another.
The result promised to shift the landscape in the KCAC standings and it delivered. Coupled with Sterling’s 30-18 upset over Ottawa, No. 13 Tabor’s victory over No. 15 Friends left three teams —Tabor, Friends, and Ottawa — tied for first in the conference with records of 4-1.
“I can never accept losing, but I can handle losing to (Gardner) because he’s a first-class coach and his kids play hard,” Lewis said. “I don’t like to lose at checkers. But I respect Mike Gardner in a way where I’ll be able to work through this loss, where others I couldn’t.”
No amount of mutual respect could block out the pain from this loss for Friends, though.
Even though their starting quarterback, James Bauer, was forced from the game due to an injury in the third quarter, the Falcons had three possessions in the final quarter to steal the 20-19 lead from Tabor.
Derek Racette, who had moved to the defensive side of the ball exclusively this season, replaced Bauer. The junior said he had taken 10 repetitions in practice in the week leading up to the game.
Racette rekindled the magic he once had under center, finishing off the drive Bauer was injured on with a touchdown and leading Friends down the field for the potential game-winning score late in the fourth quarter.
But on a second-down play at midfield with a handful of seconds remaining, Racette tried to slip a pass in to a covered Lewis Taylor and the ball was batted in the air several times before Tabor’s Frank Galvez intercepted it to effectively end the game.
“I felt like (after that first drive) we could go out there and keep doing it,” Racette said. “I just didn’t make the throws. There were guys open. There’s no excuse for it. I’ve just got to make the plays for my team.”
Friends was left wondering how it let leads of 13-6 at halftime and 19-13 at the end of the third quarter slip away.
Three touchdown receptions by Chris Allen, who totaled 137 yards on five catches, nearly made up for the lack of a running game, as Thomas Hankerson was bottled up for 33 yards on 21 carries.
But two missed PAT’s ultimately proved to be the demise of Friends.
“This is the game I’ve been waiting for all year after they beat us last year,” Allen said. “This just sucks. I don’t even know what to say. It’s shocking. I didn’t expect it to be like this.”
Two teams produced one great game, which left Gardner searching for the right words to say to Lewis.
“I just told (Lewis) I loved him and he said the same thing,” said Gardner, still failing to control his emotions. “He’s kind of like my big brother. I want to pound him one day out of the year, then be friends the other 364 days.”
FU—C. Allen 8 pass from Bauer (Nixon kick failed)
TC—Cole 44 run (Slavens kick failed)
FU—C. Allen 71 pass from Bauer (Nixon kick)
TC—Monroe 44 run (Slavens kick)
FU—C. Allen 20 pass from Racette (Nixon kick failed)
TC—Simmons 5 pass from Nelson (Slavens kick)
Rushing—Tabor, Monroe 34-194, Cole 4-50, McKee 3-16, Coleman 4-14, Davis 1-10, Anderson 1-10, Team 2-0, Nelson 6-(-5); Friends, Hankerson 21-33, Racette 8-32, Bauer 12-24, Scott 2-5, Taylor 1-4, Rogers 2-4.
Passing—Tabor, Nelson 9-18-0-177; Friends, Bauer 8-12-0-128, Racette 2-8-1-41, Hyde 0-1-0-0.
Receiving—Tabor, Bauer 3-92, Simmons 3-34, Anderson 1-24, Nelson 1-19, Monroe 1-8; Friends, C. Allen 5-137, Taylor 1-21, Hyde 1-16, Melugin 1-2, T. Allen 2-(-7).