For virtually the entire Class 6A championship game Saturday, Derby played even with Blue Valley North, but in the end, that wasn’t quite good enough to earn the Panthers their third straight title.
Junior quarterback Graham Mertz took a temporary break from leading the Mustangs’ devastating passing attack to score on a 15-yard touchdown run with 57 seconds to play, lifting Blue Valley North (9-4) to a wild 49-42 victory.
Derby coach Brandon Clark said afterward that the Panthers (11-2) just got nosed out.
“We knew it was going to take a perfect game to beat them,” Clark said. “We knew we were going to have to try to score almost every drive, and we just fell one drive short.”
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Mertz completed 24 of 30 passes for 462 yards and four touchdowns, but he managed to share the wealth. Nine of his completions went to senior tight end Dylan Freberg, and eight to senior receiver Nijel Roberts – who had three of Mertz’s scoring passes.
“We couldn’t get guys to the quarterback,” Clark said. “Their offensive line did a tremendous job, and their wide receivers were flying wide open down the field. Give that quarterback any time (and) he’ll carve you apart.”
Indeed, many of Mertz’s completions were on post patterns across the middle, and Mertz – who has already committed to play at Wisconsin – was frequently on target.
"He’s a really, really good quarterback,” Clark said. “He threw the ball really well. You’re not going to beat a team if you’re going to let them throw for 462 yards.”
Derby had the ball first, and junior quarterback Hunter Igo marched the team downfield 54 yards, relying primarily on the run to get the Panthers into the end zone, capped by the first of senior Brody Kooser’s four touchdowns on the day, on a 4-yard run.
But Blue Valley North had an answer, covering 71 yards in 10 plays, with senior running back Grant Hamel going the final 5 yards.
Clark said much of Derby’s problems were self-inflicted.
“The drives we got killed on were ones we got penalties on (Derby was penalized five times for 54 yards),” he said. “Almost every time we got stopped was because we stopped ourselves.”
The Mustangs forged ahead with 10:14 left in the second quarter, as Mertz connected with Roberts for 46 yards to the Derby 9, then found him again after a false-start penalty for a 14-yard score.
But Mertz and Roberts were just getting started. They countered a 1-yard score by Kooser by combining on an 87-yard pass play – again, on a post pattern – for a score that gave the Mustangs a 21-14 lead.
Igo then found Brady Walls for a 28-yard scoring play – Derby’s only touchdown via the pass – but the point-after failed, leaving the Panthers a point short, 21-20.
A second Mertz-Roberts hookup for a 6-yard score pushed the Mustangs’ lead to 28-20 at the break.
Kooser’s 4-yard run on Derby’s first possession of the second half pulled the Panthers to within 28-26, and Igo ran in the tying two-point conversion.
From there, the teams seesawed back and forth with Blue Valley North scoring and Derby tying. But as time wore down, the final equalizer eluded the Panthers.
Sophomore quarterback Grant Adler – who earlier had completed a key 7-yard pass on a fake punt to keep a Derby drive alive – was called to replace Igo, who was helped from the field with 5:20 left, shortly before Kooser’s fourth TD pulled Derby even again. But after the Mustangs’ last touchdown, he was intercepted at the Derby 24, and the Mustangs ran out the clock.
Even though Derby graduates a number of seniors, Clark is confident in his returning nucleus and players coming up to fill the gaps.
“We’ll bounce back and we’ll try to get back here again next year,” he said. “I’m excited, we’ve got a lot of young kids that are really good, not to take away from what these seniors have accomplished. Brody Kooser is a workhorse, Evan Clark, Jordan Renard, Gage (Jones) in the middle on our offensive line. Those guys have done a tremendous job, and they were a big part of our state championship team last year.
“This team has found a way the last three games, and we just came up short.”
D – Kooser 4 run (Syring kick)
BVN – Hamel 5 run (Shertenlieb kick)
BVN – Roberts 14 pass from Mertz (Shertenlieb kick)
D – Kooser 1 run (Syring kick)
BVN – Roberts 87 pass from Mertz (Shertenlieb kick)
D – Walls 28 pass from Igo (kick failed)
BVN – Roberts 6 pass from Mertz (Shertenlieb kick)
D – Kooser 4 run (Igo run)
BVN – Hamel 7 run (Shertenlieb kick)
D – Igo 9 run (Syring kick)
BVN – Garcia 20 pass from Mertz (Shertenlieb kick)
D – Kooser 5 run (Syring kick)
BVN – Mertz 15 run (Shertenlieb kick)
RUSHING – Derby: Igo 24-175, Kooser 31-123, Taylor 1-2, Adler 1-0. Blue Valley North: Hamel 14-62, Mertz 9-36, Ivkovic 2-26, team 2-0.
PASSING – Derby: Igo 13-20-1-199; Adler 1-2-1-7. Blue Valley North: Mertz 24-30-0-462.
RECEIVING – Derby: Taylor 6-78, Littleton 4-54, Walls 3-60, Kooser 1-7. Blue Valley North: Freberg 9-222, Roberts 8-188, Garcia 3-29, Burt 3-18.