Bulldogs saddle Trailblazers
There was a collective sigh of relief Friday night at Liston Stadium after the Baldwin High Bulldogs put the finishing touches to a thrilling 32-29 victory over the Gardner Trailblazers. But bigger than calmed nerves was what the win meant in bringing respect to the program.
"It was a big, big, big win," said head coach Mike Berg. "We are so excited the coaches, the players and, hopefully, the community is excited. We beat a very good team Friday night.
"It was a total team victory. Our special team scored a touchdown, our kicking was good, the offense played well and so did the defense," said Berg.
BHS entered the game as 14-point underdogs despite being at home and with both teams having 1-1 records. There was that "UnderDawg" role that Baldwin High answers so well. The Dawgs did it the week before against Wellsville, but knocking off Gardner one of the top teams in the Frontier League meant even more.
"In the past, we've just been another team on the schedule for those schools. They can't say that anymore," said Berg. "We're a team to be reckoned with. More importantly, the kids believe that now. We can beat anybody. We have enough talent on both sides of the ball that we can be dangerous."
It was dangerous for the faint of heart Friday. From the opening kickoff where BHS used hand-off trickery to break junior Tyler Inzer loose for a 75-yard touchdown run, to the defense forcing its sixth turnover of the night with 1:07 left to seal the victory, there was something for everyone.
"I think the fans were very pleased when they left relieved as much as anything. They saw a great game," he said. "They might have been a little nervous, but we came out on top.
"We played four quarters. There wasn't a quarter where we didn't play tough," he said. "We hit so hard. Their kids were getting up slow and our kids were just popping back up. I was real pleased with how our running backs and our defensive players would jump right back up after hits, while they weren't."
That was the case on both sides of the ball, where the offense ran tough and the defense answered the call time and again. But, probably most important was the battle in the trenches.
"I can't say enough about our offensive line," said Berg. "Our offensive line came off the ball and dominated. So did the defensive line. We dominated both lines of scrimmage. They were big and are a good team. We took it to them."
There's a reason for all that, too, and it came during the four days prior to Friday's event. The Bulldogs were ready.
"The kids came to play every kid," he said. "We had our best week of practice since I've been in Baldwin. Our defense was playing like it was a scrimmage all week. There was a lot of emotion in our practices. You play like you practice. We played with a lot of emotion."
And it was that way from the start. Gardner won the toss and deferred to the second half. That meant BHS received the opening kickoff and what a break that proved to be. Junior Adam Turk caught the kickoff, handed off to senior Bo Donora, who then handed off to Inzer who was gone in a flash, streaking 75 yards for a touchdown. It was the second week in a row that Inzer scored on a long gallop to open the BHS scoring and set the team on the right path.
"It was very huge," Berg said of the opening kickoff return. "It kind of shocked the Trailblazers. I don't know if they were looking past us. They over pursued and Tyler Inzer got down the sidelines and was gone."
It was a sign of more to come. The next came on the defensive side when Gardner answered with a long drive. The Trailblazers had a first and goal at the 10, but the BHS defense stiffened and forced them to settle for a field goal.
"That was really big," he said of the initial stand.
Gardner then took advantage of BHS's only turnover of the first half, an interception, to take a 9-6 lead. The Bulldogs answered with another good sign almost with a huge drive that ended at the 1-yard line with no points. The defense's biggest blemish then occurred when Trailblazer quarterback Tony Blankenship broke free for a 99-yard touchdown run for a 15-6 advantage. From there, the Bulldogs only got better.
It was also when the defense started to force turnovers. On Gardner's next possession, the defense stuck Blankenship and forced a fumble which was recovered by senior defensive lineman Daniel Lang. One play later senior quarterback Heath Knight found a streaking Ben Cosman for a touchdown. Cosman, a 6-foot-4 senior wide receiver, made an outstanding juggling catch for the 36-yard score. BHS's good fortune continued on the conversion as Turk caught the conversion pass after it was tipped by a Gardner defender. That left Gardner on top 15-14 with 6:34 left in the half.
Bulldog defenders then stuffed Gardner for minus three yards on three plays and forced a punt. Senior Nathan Floersch returned it for a touchdown, but it was called back because of a penalty. Didn't matter. Three plays later freshman tailback Micah Mason, getting the varsity call because of his brother Caleb's injury last week, broke loose for a 34-yard touchdown scamper to give BHS its first lead at 20-15 with 3:44 remaining in the half.
Unfortunately, that lead didn't last long. The one bugaboo of the Bulldog defense on the night came back again. They gave up the big play, this time a 65-yard run by Gardner tailback Davey Highfill, less than a minute later. The conversion failed and the half ended with Gardner up 21-20.
That lead held through the third quarter as the offensive show the teams put on in the first half took a break for a quarter. It was defense, and plenty of it, in the third frame. BHS forced three turnovers two fumbles and an interception by Floersch. However, the Bulldogs couldn't convert and had their only other turnover of the night, a fumble, to thwart a drive.
Then came the fourth quarter and what a quarter it was. BHS punted to open the frame and the special teams came through with a good punt by Knight and a tackle by junior Brett Myrick that stuck the Trailblazers at their own 13-yard line. BHS then sacked Highfill who was now playing quarterback because of a broken clavicle injury to Blankenship for a three-yard loss and the junior fumbled. It was recovered by Bulldog senior Andy Breedlove at the 10.
One play later Knight ran the option and scooted in for the go-ahead touchdown. The conversion run failed, but BHS was ahead for good at 26-21 with 10:51 left.
The defense and offense then combined for what looked to be the game clincher. Bulldog defenders forced a three-and-out, holding the Trailblazers to just two yards and a punt.
The Bulldog offense then went on its best drive of the night, covering 70 yards in 15 plays. It was a steady run diet with freshman Mason and senior Tyler Craig carrying the load. Mason did the lion's share, picking up 61 yards on eight carries. On the night, Mason gained 137 yards on 17 carries. But, facing a fourth and goal at the five-yard line, the Bulldogs went back to the air. Knight found sophomore tight end Brian Lauridsen in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown that appeared to seal the game at 32-21 with 2:06 left.
It didn't. Gardner found the Bulldog defense flat footed and asleep on a reverse halfback pass for a 68-yard touchdown with 1:38 left. Again, the big play bit the Bulldogs. It didn't get better. On the ensuing kickoff, Gardner blasted the on-side kick to perfection and recovered.
Throats tightened. Bulldog anxiety returned. Nails were chewed. But, the BHS defense answered once again, forcing a turnover to save the game. Three plays into Gardner's desperation drive it was Craig recovering a Highfill fumble that saved the day and the game for BHS with 1:07 left.
Knight took a knee for two plays and the victory, finally, was in hand. It was a team victory, with many components, many stars, many players that got the job done.
"It was everybody," said Berg. "This was a team victory."
And now that effort moves to the next game, Friday's contest at 7 p.m. in Osawatomie. Berg cautions that the Trojans shouldn't be taken lightly.
"They haven't won a game. They're a young team that plays hard," he said. "This is a team that beat Louisburg last year (in the Class 4A playoffs to drop the Wildcats from the ranks of the unbeaten) after losing to them in the regular season 50-6."
Osawatomie runs a 5-2 defense and an unbalanced line on offense that favors the run.