No matter how rare a pass play is called during an actual game, the Conway Springs players swear it doesn’t come as a surprise when Dakota Finstad puts the ball in the air.
They must be the only ones.
Garden Plain did just about everything possible to shut down the Cardinals’ powerful ground game, only to watch their work foiled by four crippling completions that went for 132 yards in Conway Springs’ 27-8 victory.
“Yeah, I guess maybe just a little bit,” Finstad said when asked if he would be surprised if he were on defense. “People don’t expect us to come out and actually pass it.”
“We practice it a lot, so we trust it,” senior Luke Fisher added.
Most opponents never have the chance to practice against it because if a team cannot stop the Cardinals from running over and over, then they may never throw the ball.
But Garden Plain was able to accomplish this, as its defensive line was disruptive enough to allow its linebackers to attack the Cardinals in the backfield. Conway Springs was held to an average of 3.4 yards per carry on the 53 times it ran the ball.
“It’s not about the athlete, it’s about how you move them up front,” Garden Plain linebacker Ethan Balestracci said. “They could have had (Tanner) Wood from last year running the ball and I’m pretty sure we would have done the same thing.”
Conway Springs coach Matt Biehler gave the Owls credit where it was due, but the reason why the Cardinals remained unbeaten at 6-0 is because they can execute their passing game even when the other team knows a pass is coming.
Alec Stanley made an impressive snag, almost batting the ball to himself with one hand, for a 57-yard reception to set up Conway’s first touchdown for a 7-0 lead.
When Garden Plain challenged its lead, drawing to within 19-8 in the fourth quarter, Conway Springs went to the pass to convert two 3rd-and-10 situations. The plays extended the game-clinching 14-play, 7-minute drive capped by Travis Wood’s 2-yard touchdown plunge.
“When we have to do it, I think passing is a good tool we can use,” Biehler said. “We had some kids make some big-time plays and that’s what we ask for. We’ll just do what the defense gives us.”
For as good as Garden Plain was on defense, Conway Springs may have been even better.
While the Cardinals offense did their part by possessing the ball for 30 minutes of the game, the defense held Garden Plain to 123 total yards.
The Owls went 34 minutes in between first downs, not picking up their second one until 1:37 remaining in the third quarter. In their eight other possessions beside the scoring drive, the Owls could only muster 63 yards on 28 plays and two first downs.
“I’m still proud as heck of our kids,” Garden Plain coach Brad McCormick said. “We are down (6 starters) from injuries and we still fought back and didn’t give up there in the fourth quarter.”
It’s a mentality that Garden Plain will have to retain, as it has now lost three consecutive games and enters district play with a 3-3 record.
Usually it is the Owls’ opponents that are desperate for the clean start that district season provides, not the other way around.
“That’s what we’ve got to do, though,” Balestracci said. “I can’t remember the last time we’ve lost three games in a row, but we’ve got to forget about it.”
CS—Fisher 9 run (Davis kick)
CS—Fisher 1 run (Davis kick)
CS—Davis 20 field goal
GP—W. Lehner 1 run (Balestracci run)
CS—Wood 2 run (Kreifels run)
Rushing—Garden Plain, Balestracci 7-35, Bergkamp 1-14, Hilger 5-12, G. Lehner 1-3, Zoglman 1-1, W. Lehner 12-0; Conway Springs, Wood 24-93, Finstad 15-64, Fisher 11-29, Kreifels 2-(-2), Stanley 1-(-3).
Passing—Garden Plain, W. Lehner 5-12-0-58; Conway Springs, Finstad 4-5-0-132.
Receiving—Garden Plain, Balestracci 1-20, Thimesch 1-12, Joplin 1-11, Koester 1-10, Hageman 1-5; Conway Springs, Stanley 1-57, Gillespie 1-37, Wood 1-23, Huff 1-15.