BURWELL – The maturation of a large class of sophomore starters played a big role in Burwell’s run through the Class D-1 playoffs.
But the seniors who have led the team all season made sure they weren’t forgotten during Monday’s semifinal contest against Dundy County-Stratton.
Corey Dawe blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, and Jase Williams gained most of his rushing yards in the second half to help the Longhorns pull away for a 28-10 victory.
It’s the fourth time in five seasons that Burwell is headed to the D-1 state championship game, and all four times the Longhorns clinched the trip to Lincoln on their home field.
“It feels just like the other ones, maybe even a little more special just because how far this team has come along and developed throughout the season,” Burwell coach Luke Gideon said. “As a coach, as long as I’ve been doing this, the important thing is to watch kids get better and better, and that’s what these kids did all year long.”
The mingling of players, family and friends after a semifinal victory is becoming a November tradition in the town.
“It means a lot,” said Dawe, a defensive back/running back who also recovered a misplayed kickoff. “We were down so much at the beginning of the year, and we just grew a lot this season. You can just see it by the way we play. Our tenacity has improved and our will to win. It means a lot to make it four out of five years.”
Two potent rushing attacks were corralled by the defenses for much of the game, meaning that any turnovers and special teams plays would be magnified down the stretch.
Dawe came through.
With the Longhorns (10-2) clinging to a 14-10 lead, he blocked a punt and scooped it up for a 1-yard touchdown return with 11:10 remaining in the game.
“We didn’t call a block, but I rushed anyway,” he said. “I went in and stuck one arm up. I didn’t think I was going to get it, but I did. The ball was right in front of me, so I picked it up and scored on that.
“That was really a turning point, I think, so I’m glad I got to do that.”
Gideon wasn’t surprised that Dawe was the player who came through in a key situation.
“Here’s a senior on our team, and he’s made those plays his whole career,” he said. “He’s a special kid.”
That play came shortly after Burwell was able to limit the damage on a special teams mistake. A snap sailed over the head of punter Barak Birch, who collected the ball in the end zone and ran out of bounds to give Dundy County-Stratton (10-2) a safety with 1:20 left in the third.
After Dawe’s block and score, Burwell’s rushing attack took over. Williams, who was limited to 27 yards on 10 carries in the first half, collected 90 yards on 17 touches after halftime.
His two longest runs came in the fourth quarter, and he added an 8-yard insurance score with 5:28 remaining.
“I think when we run on people they start getting tired because we’re pretty big,” Williams said. “We just started executing. We talked at halftime about how to fix some blocks, and it worked.”
The Tigers provided Burwell with the battle it expected.
“We thought maybe we would create some turnovers,” Gideon said. “That’s something we hadn’t done early in the year and then the last couple of games we have done that. We were able to create a couple turnovers.
“They have a tough running game and are tough up front. They were stopping us here and there. We were throwing the ball a little bit, but it seemed like we never had the football. They used the clock well to try to slow the pace of the game down.”
Dundy County-Stratton’s lone touchdown came with 33 seconds left in the first quarter. Quarterback Quade Myers kept the ball for a 4-yard score on a speed option to put the Tigers up 8-0.
A big swing of events eventually went Burwell’s way late in the half. DCS got a huge stop on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, but Burwell’s defense forced a three-and-out.
Williams scored on an 18-yard pass from Birch, and Alex Gideon’s reception on the PAT tied it up at 8 with 1:05 to go before halftime.
“That was huge for momentum,” Luke Gideon said. “We only had three series (prior to that) in the first half, and we didn’t capitalize on any of them. On the last one, we were (able to capitalize) and got the momentum for halftime.
“There were just some things we thought we could do in the second half once we adjusted there.”
The seniors especially appreciated earning another trip to Memorial Stadium.
“When we made it my freshman year, I told myself we were going to make it when I was a senior,” Williams said. “So it means a lot.”
It extends an impressive run by the Longhorns who have always had success during Luke Gideon’s tenure but have taken things to the next level over the past half decade.
“It’s not easy,” the coach said. “Anybody who’s ever done it I have a ton of respect for them because I know how hard our kids work here. It becomes mental toughness that’s really built into the program right now.
“These younger guys have witnessed brothers, cousins, friends be a part of the program. I think that all builds on itself and really represents who we are that we plan on winning. It’s important that we win, and it’s always a lot more fun when you do win.”
Williams said: “We have a good winning tradition here, and Mr. Gideon is a great coach. We work hard and he pushes us.”