The feeling of getting close to where you want to be is satisfying. At the same time the searing pain of defeat and dealing with the growing pains while getting there is difficult.
The West Holmes Knights faced a huge task in knocking heads with a talented Bellevue team on Friday, Sept. 9 at Knights Stadium at West Holmes High School in week three, and the task was taller when the Knights found themselves trailing by two scores early on.
However, West Holmes never quit, and a last-ditch effort fell just short with a fumble on the Bellevue 2-yard line as West Holmes dropped a 34-26 game that continued a trend in the right direction for Zac Gardner’s crew, despite the 0-3 record.
“I’m so proud of the way these kids fought,” Gardner said. “We showed so much attitude and fight and a willingness to give everything we had. We left everything on the field, but we still didn’t win. It’s time for us to win. These kids deserve to see positive results for all of the commitment and hard work they have put in.”
The game certainly did not begin the way the Knights wanted it to. Bellevue scored on a Jack Howey 1-yard plunge on its opening drive to make it 7-0 and then scored again in the first stanza to make it 14-0 on a long 68-yard pass play from quarterback Riley Renwand to wide-out Dakota McPeak.
Facing a monstrous hole against a very good opponent, it would have been easy for West Holmes to close up shop for the evening, but instead the Knights battled back when Cale Ogi found the end zone at the end of the first quarter to trim the deficit to 14-6.
Bellevue tacked on another score in the second period when Renwand found Colton Ray for a score to make it 21-6, but the Knights responded when quarterback Bridger Cline connected with Shane Jones on a score to cut the lead to 21-13.
Again Bellevue couldn’t be stopped and pushed the lead back out to 28-13 at the half when Renwand and McPeak partnered up for a score.
With the defense unable to halt the ferocious Redmen attack, head coach Gardner said adjustments had to be made to give the Knights a chance to come back.
His Knights responded to the half-time challenge, and it would be Grady Hay who would find pay dirt to start the third quarter, hauling in a 5-yard scoring strike from Cline to make it 28-20.
Bellevue quickly pushed the lead back to 14 at 34-20, but with time winding down in the third quarter, the Knights mounted a drive that ended in a Gavin Sheldon touchdown on a 13-yard romp to get the Knights within one score at 34-26 heading into the fourth quarter.
Little did fans realize that in this high-scoring affair, that would be the final score, although the Knights drove down and coughed up the ball mid-way through the fourth period after having driven inside the 10-yard line.
But the defense, which was led by a ferocious effort from Brayden Vess, who had a monster game before getting injured late, held the Redmen and gave the Knights one final chance that made things incredibly tense until the final seconds.
“Brayden played like a man,” Gardner said of Vess. “He was unstoppable all night.”
With West Holmes facing the length of the field with under two minutes to play, Cline began engineering a drive that took the Knights down the field as he continued to find Brayden Chaney for big chunks of yardage as the Redmen played off to prevent the big play.
West Holmes drove inside the 10 again, and when Cline found Chaney, it looked like they might punch it in as Chaney fought for yardage. But after his second and third effort, a Bellevue defender reached in and stripped the ball from Chaney, and the Redmen recovered, ending the Knights’ hopes of victory.
“We turned the ball over late in their end of the field twice in the fourth quarter, and both of those were effort turnovers where kids were fighting for everything they could get,” Gardner said. “That is an attitude and a fight I love to see in kids, and I am not going to fault them when they give that kind of effort.”
Chaney ended up setting the school record for receptions in a game, hauling in 13 Cline offerings for 107 receiving yards. Jones also had a huge day receiving, catching eight passes for 125 yards and a score, while Hay added a nice evening of seven catches for 71 yards.
“There’s a lot to like about Bridger,” Gardner said of Cline. “He is growing into the spread offense quickly, and he is really picking it up and understanding it well.”
The Knights had trouble stopping McPeak, who grabbed seven balls for 156 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Cline ended the night completing 29-of-41 passes for 313 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Sheldon ran for 52 yards and a score while Ogi added 27 yards and a touchdown. Cline rumbled for 24 yards on the ground. Howey churned out 172 yards rushing with two scores for Bellevue.
As for the A-plus effort, it wasn’t enough to quell the pain of another tight loss.
“Kids were crying in the locker room. They were absolutely heart-broken,” Gardner said. “It hurts, and it hurts a lot because they are invested. You know you’ve got a team worth coaching when they care that much.”
Gardner said the 0-3 start reminds him very much of his first season at Sandy Valley, where they began the year 0-3. That team went on to find success, as did the program, and the head coach said he sees a lot of similarities in the way this Knights team is willing to listen and learn as they discover a brand-new offense in the spread.
Gardner’s spread offense is very new to a program that has been a running team for decades.
“There are a million ways to run an offense, and none are any better than any other until you learn to teach them correctly and run them properly,” Gardner said. “These kids have the game in a phone booth for so long, and there isn’t anything wrong with that. It has been successful. This is just something different that has to be taught and learned.”
As they learn the system, the excitement continues to grow, despite the 0-3 record, and Gardner and his staff’s passion continues to infiltrate the kids and the community as they continue to earn experience and gain ground on finding that elusive first win.