SENECA — Riley County’s first drive against Nemaha Central started so well. The Falcons were moving the ball. Quarterback Garrett Harmison was firing quick-hitter screens, which were turning into long gains.
Riley County had a great start in its Class 2A state semifinal matchup with Nemaha Central Saturday afternoon.
Problem for the Falcons: The well dried out. When they drove within the Thunder 5, the field shrunk and their options evaporated. The series ended in a turnover on downs.
“You’ve got to be able to power it into the end zone in that situation,” Riley County coach Steve Wagner said, “and we weren’t able to do so.”
That described Riley County’s best drive Saturday afternoon in its 39-14 loss to Nemaha Central. The Falcons’ season ended because their offense faltered, unable to recover from the four interceptions Harmison threw in his final game at Riley County.
Riley County ends the season at 9-3.
Nemaha Central (10-2) turned three of those picks into touchdowns, all on the ground, totaling 194 rushing yards on the afternoon. Running back Gavin Duryea gashed Riley County for 28 carries, 112 yards and four scores. Quarterback Dylan Schultejans, who completed 5 of 8 passes for 104 yards, also carried 12 times for 41 yards and two touchdowns.
That doesn’t tell the whole story, though.
Instead, it was the way the Thunder scored. In the first half, they turned three straight interceptions into field position inside the Falcons’ 40, and the hosts’ offense reaped the benefits. The Thunder had short fields, and they made the most of them, capitalizing with even shorter touchdown rushes from Duryea and Schultejans.
“That makes it extremely difficult,” Wagner said. “Usually, you’re more aggressive defensively, and it was hard to establish the run, and we threw a few interceptions. That’s not on the quarterback. That’s a team thing, whenever there’s turnovers.”
The other reason Nemaha Central is moving on to the 2A state title game is because it pushed all the right buttons on defense against Riley County. The Thunder limited a run-heavy Falcon offense to just 90 rushing yards, stifling running back Deon Barnes into a meager 53 yards on 14 carries. No other Falcon rushed for more than 15 yards.
That forced Riley County to pass more than usual. Nemaha Central jumped all over it. Harmison, who completed 7 of 18 passes for 88 yards, four interceptions and a touchdown, looked far from himself.
“Their defense was just on it, you know?” Barnes said. “They worked hard. We worked hard, too, but I guess they were the better team today. They worked their (butts) off, and they deserved it.”
When the first half ended and the Falcons were staring down the barrel of a 21-0 deficit, the culprits behind their demise were already beginning to surface.
Harmison had tossed three interceptions. Nemaha Central turned two into touchdowns. The Falcons did stuff the Thunder on the 1-yard line early in the first quarter, but Harmison followed with a pick, and Nemaha Central responded with a two-yard score from Schultejans.
That score, which came with five seconds left in the first half, gave the hosts all the momentum in the world.
Even apart from Harmison’s forgettable first half, though, the Falcons’ offense couldn’t get much going. Their running game languished, no matter the personnel. Their passing attack floundered, even when Harmison avoided turnovers. For Riley County, the answers were few and far between, and they seldom found the solutions.
That’s how well Nemaha Central made adjustments following Riley County’s first drive.
“They just defended better as the game went,” Wagner said. “They came up on our receivers a little tighter and took away the short passing game and made us throw deep. We didn’t do that as well as we wanted to, and they defended it well.”
Riley County didn’t get shut out, though. Late in the fourth stanza, sophomore Trey Harmison used a 16-yard touchdown rush to give the Falcons their first points. One drive later, Harmison connected with senior Avrey Brokenicky for 29 yards and a score.
The Thunder had just done enough to render those touchdowns inconsequential.
“Something hit us, and we didn’t see it coming,” Brokenicky said. “We didn’t give up. We fought till the end. Just wasn’t our day.”
Now, Riley County is left to pick up the pieces from a season that included the following: Two wins over rival 2A superpower Silver Lake, an eight-game winning streak, the program’s longest in 23 years. A sectional championship, plus a spot in the state semifinal for the second straight year.
The Falcons will bid farewell to 12 seniors, including Harmison, Barnes and Brokenicky, three of the main cogs that fueled the club this year.
This isn’t the ending they envisioned, not nearly, but they’ll tell you they couldn’t imagine experiencing it next to anyone else.
If Barnes’ favorite memory from the season is any indication, that was as true in August as it was Saturday afternoon.
“Going to practice every day,” Barnes said. “I know that sounds dumb, but I’m going to miss that.”
Nemaha Central 39, Riley County 14
RC 0 0 0 14 — 14
NC 0 21 12 6 — 39
NC — Schultejans 1 rush (PAT good), 6:10
NC — Duryea 7 rush (PAT good), 3:03
NC — Schultejans 2 rush (PAT good), 0:05
NC — Duryea 6 rush (PAT failed), 8:47
NC — Duryea 1 rush (2-pt no good), 6:17
NC — Duryea 8 rush (2-pt no good), 5:36
RC — T. Harmison 16 rush (PAT good), 3:34
RC — Brokenicky 29 pass from G. Harmison (PAT good), 1:05
RUSHING — Riley County: Barnes 14-53, G. Harmison 6-11, T. Harmison 3-15, Brokenicky 4-11 // Nemaha Central: Duryea 28-112, Schultejans 12-41, Gerety 1-4, Uphaus 2-25, Henry 3-7, Kramer 3-5
PASSING — Riley County: G. Harmison 7-18-4 88 // Nemaha Central: Schultejans 5-8-0 104
RECEIVING — Riley County: Brokenicky 2-38, T. Harmison 4-39, C. Holle 1-11 // Nemaha Central: Gerety 2-48, Leonard 1-31, Ahlquist 1-11