CLINTON – Despite winning most of the battles in last Friday night’s WIAA Division 5 state quarterfinal football contest, the Lancaster Flying Arrows wound up losing the war.
With a 20-15 loss to the host Clinton Cougars (11-1), coach John Hoch’s Flying Arrows closed out the 2016 football season with an overall record of 10-2. After 34 years coaching, Hoch now has a career playoff record of 67-19 and an overall coaching record of 297-103.
If I hadn’t just told you the score, and only gave you a few of the statistics, you might feel safe in your assumption that Lancaster won the game.
For instance, take into account that against the Lancaster defense, Clinton was 0-for-8 on third-down attempts and 0-for-3 on fourth-down attempts.
Or that the Lancaster offense ran 12 more plays than their opponent and had the ball for nearly three more minutes than the Cougars.
How about the fact that junior fullback Evan Gates rushed for 326 yards on 38 carries, gashing the Clinton defense for 8.6 yards per attempt.
While it’s true that stats don’t lie, they certainly don’t tell the entire story, at least when it comes to last Friday night’s playoff game.
It was no secret to the Lancaster coaches and players that Clinton possessed a lot of team speed, and that they were capable of making big plays at a moments notice.
Case in point, the first offensive series for the Cougars, who used five plays to go 71 yards and take a 7-0 lead with less than two minutes taken off the clock.
“As far as that first series, we just weren’t adjusted to their speed,” said coach Hoch. “We came out and played much better after that though.”
After two lost fumbles and one punt, the Lancaster offense evened the score on the last play of the first quarter, when Evan Gates raced up the middle for a 28-yard touchdown run, followed by the extra-point kick from Tanner Oyen.
The Lancaster defense then forced Clinton to punt on their next possession, and the Flying Arrow offense kept things rolling.
On a second-and-10 from the Lancaster 15, Gates took a handoff up the middle, broke through a pile of tacklers and raced 66 yards before being brought down at the 19 with a horse collar penalty added on.
Gates eventually scored from two yards out, and added a two-point conversion run to give Lancaster a 15-7 lead with 9:13 to play in the first half.
Each team punted on their next possession, but with 1:06 to play in the first half, Clinton threatened to take the lead.
On third-and-nine from Lancaster’s 21-yard line, senior defensive back Tanner Reuter broke up a pass attempt in the end zone. Then on fourth down, Reuter again knocked a pass down, giving Lancaster possession at their own 21-yard line with 51 seconds showing on the clock.
Three running plays to Gates gained 47 yards, and put Lancaster at Clinton’s 32-yard line, but on a short pass play designed to get out of bounds and stop the clock, the Cougars picked off the deflected pass and returned it 70 yards for the score with just four seconds remaining in the half.
“That was a killer, and that was my fault for trying to be too aggressive, I think, and for trying to save our timeouts,” Hoch said. “It was something we run all the time and we were just trying to clock it.”
Instead of going into the locker room with a one, or even two, touchdown lead, the Flying Arrows held a 15-13 advantage after the defense denied Clinton on the two-point conversion attempt.
In the third quarter, the only scoring came on a safety, where Clinton was forced to punt from inside their one-yard line and snapped the ball through the end zone.
After a turnover by Lancaster and a punt by Clinton, the Flying Arrows took possession at their own 27-yard line with 7:38 to play in the game, clinging to a 17-13 advantage.
Lancaster ran seven plays before punting to the Cougars with 3:56 showing on the clock.
As he had done throughout the entire game, Lancaster punter Larry Moore booted a beauty, which was downed at the Clinton nine-yard-line, leaving the Cougars with 91-yards between them and their end zone.
It took just four plays and about a minute and a half for Clinton to score the game-winning touchdown, as quarterback Tyler Halsted ran for 63 yards on two rushes and Peyton Pope scored from 23-yards out with 2:37 showing on the clock. The extra-point kick gave the Cougars a 20-17 lead.
“I don’t think we changed what we were doing as far as our thought process, or I don’t know if it was fatigue,” said coach Hoch of his defense. “We haven’t been in that situation all year, where we needed to score or we needed to shut a team down,” Hoch added. “We’ve either been in control of the game, or in the one we lost, we were out of it toward the end.”
Lancaster still had one last chance with the ball, and after Tanner Reuter’s 18-yard kick return, the Flying Arrows were set up at their own 36-yard-line.
Following a couple short running plays, Lancaster drew a pass-interference call that put the ball at Clinton’s 48-yard line. An incomplete pass followed by a seven-yard run by Gates, made it third-and-three from the 39-yard line.
A fumble on the very next play, which was Lancaster’s fourth of the game, was recovered by the Cougars at the 41-yard-line with 1:09 to play, ending any hopes of a game-winning drive.
Clinton finished the night with 275 yards rushing on 39 attempts, and on their first and last offensive series, gained 162 yards on nine attempts, and for the rest of the game had 30 rushing attempts for 113 yards.
“You can’t fault how our kids’ played, both offensively and defensively,” said coach Hoch. “I thought they came to play right from the start.”
For Clinton halfback Peyton Pope, who finished with 162 rushing yards on 22 carries, he had 67 yards on four carries in his team’s first scoring drive.
For quarterback Tyler Halsted, who finished with 64 yards on eight carries, he had 63 of them on two carries in his team’s final scoring drive.
Leading the Lancaster defense with eight tackles was senior Tanner Reuter, while juniors Ethan Klar and Jordan Reuter each had five. Jordan Reuter also had the team’s only interception, giving him four for the season.
Offensively for Lancaster, Gates shouldered much of the load, finishing with 326 yards rushing on 38 carries, while junior quarterback Evan Straka added 23 yards on 17 rushing attempts. Seniors Drew Reuter and Tanner Reuter each had one carry for a total of two yards.
Through the air, Straka completed 3-of-7 passing attempts for 12 yards, the longest going to Gates for eight yards.
“We were going to live and die with Gates, and I told him that before the game started,” Hoch said.
“We tried to get outside a couple times early, and both times we lost yards. They beat two or three of our blocks by just out-running us to the outside. They were just quicker than us,” Hoch added.
Knowing Clinton had a lot of speed on the outside, Hoch made the decision to attack their defense up the middle.
“The thinking was, why run something that probably isn’t going to be successful because of their speed,” Hoch explained.
“Gates played his best game of the season, as far as how hard and where he was running, and he was also making skinny cuts that were really effective,” Hoch said. “The guys up front also were blocking really well, coming off double teams and getting to the next level.”
Going into last Friday night’s contest, Gates needed just six yards to break the single-season school rushing record of 1,966 yards set by Tyler Glass in 2014. He finished the season with 2,287 yards in 12 games, becoming the only rusher in school history to surpass the 2,000-yard mark in a single season.
“He just had an outstanding season,” said Hoch of Gates. “When we went to our double split instead of our flex, it is set up to feature one back.”
“What he did this season though was done silently. What I mean by that is that you didn’t hear a lot of people talking about him. All of a sudden you realize he’s got that many yards, and it kind of surprised me too,” Hoch added.
According to WisSports.net, Gates’ performance on Friday night also made him the state’s leading rusher after 12 weeks.
Despite last week’s state quarterfinal loss, Hoch realizes was a special season his Flying Arrows had, with a conference championship and a deep playoff run to show for it.
“We thought we could have a good season. Anytime you have a season above .500, a lot depends on how the underclassmen fall into their roles, and they fit in pretty good,” Hoch said. “I think the seniors led us in the proper direction, as you always look for, and they provided great leadership.”
“I also think our coaches really take pride in what they do. With coach Stiklestad leading the defensive group and the offensive coaches who are helping me, they are all just unbelievable. They really take pride in what they do,” said Hoch.
Lancaster loses 13 starting seniors from this year’s group and will return 10 junior starters and two sophomores.
Clinton 20, Lancaster 17
(WIAA D5 state quarterfinal from Friday, Nov. 4)
Lancaster 7 8 2 0 - 17
Clinton 7 6 0 7 - 20
C - Peyton Pope, 2-yard run (Jesus Juarez kick)
L - Evan Gates, 28-yard run (Tanner Oyen kick)
L - Evan Gates, 2-yard run (Evan Gates run)
C - Jordan Jones, 70-yard interception return (run failed)
L - Safety, Clinton snap goes out of end zone during punt attempt
C - Peyton Pope, 23-yard run (Jesus Juarez kick)
First downs - L 19, C 17. Rushing - L 57-351, C 39-275. Passing yards - L 12, C 81. Passes - L 3-8-1, C 6-14-1. Fumbles-lost - L 6-4, C 2-1. Penalties-yards - L 2-10, C 6-50.
Rushing leaders: L: Evan Gates 38-326, Evan Straka 17-23, Drew Reuter 1-2, Tanner Reuter 1-0; C: Peyton Pope 22-162, Tyler Halsted 8-64, Zach Krause 6-43, Jordan Jones 2-5, Connor Mullooly 1-1.
Passing leaders: L: Evan Straka 3-7-1, 12. C: Tyler Halsted 4-9-0, 58.
Receiving leaders: L: Evan Gates 1-8, Nick Seiler 1-3, Tanner Reuter 1-1. C: Jordan Jones 2-44, Johnny Espinoza 1-20, Cole Ciochon 2-18.