KEARNEY — Islander magic lives on.
On the heels of last season’s remarkable run to the state title game, Grand Island Senior High pulled off the biggest comeback victory in Class A playoff history in the first round against Omaha North and produced another fourth-quarter rally to beat Millard South in the quarterfinals. On Friday night, the No. 9-rated (Omaha World-Herald) Islanders were able to escape UNK’s Ron and Carol Cope Stadium with a 32-31 victory over rival Kearney after trailing 31-18 with 9:53 to play.
After Carson Cahoy’s 65-yard touchdown run and a point-after kick by sophomore Braxton Mendez cut the Bearcats’ lead to 31-25 with 7:46 remaining, Grand Island defensive back Broc Douglass intercepted a pass at the Kearney 35-yard line with 6:31 to go and later hauled in the tying TD pass at the right edge of the end zone on an 8-yard fourth-down pass from Cahoy with 3:14 left.
“This is a tough group of guys,” said Cahoy, who saw several teammates sidelined by leg cramps throughout the second half. “We never give in and we never give up. We just put our head down and kept going.
“I’m so proud of our guys and they way they battled today.”
Of Cahoy’s fourth-down TD pass to Douglass, Grand Island coach Jeff Tomlin said he and offensive coordinator Russ Harvey were “thinking four downs all the way.”
“Coach Harvey knew the play we wanted to go to if we had to have it,” Tomlin said. “It was a good throw, great catch and give our offensive line credit for giving us time and credit Braxton for coming in and kicking the PAT — watch a clutch deal for a sophomore.”
Mendez’s second PAT kick gave the Islanders a one-point lead.
“If you don’t have guys step up and make plays, none of it matters,” Tomlin said. “Carson stepped up big, Broc stepped up big and what do you say about Caleb (Francl)? On a badly sprained ankle, he still came in and ran his heart out at the end. I’m really proud of all the kids.”
Grand Island (1-0) won despite being penalized 14 times for 145 yards. A 10-yard defensive holding flag, followed by a personal foul, almost undid the Islanders’ comeback on Kearney’s final drive, which reached the GISH 24. However, a 41-yard field-goal attempt by Bearcat James Dakan with 28 seconds left sailed wide left and Tomlin’s team was able to end the game with a kneel-down.
“All the penalties are definitely not something we’re happy about and we have to clean up, but our kids are resilient and they responded,” Tomlin said. “I saw positive body language. I didn’t see anyone dropping their head and I saw them supporting each other.
“That’s really what we’re looking for in game one out of this bunch: Kind of establishing their identity and see how our leaders were going to lead.”
Tomlin said Grand Island’s experience with big-game comebacks last season might have been a factor.
“I think that doesn’t hurt,” Tomlin said. “Some of our kids have been there before and that’s really valuable experience. I’m really proud of our guys for battling for 48 minutes and not one second short. There were some courageous performances.”
Cahoy finished 14 of 24 passing for 172 yards and two TDs with one interception. The senior also rushed seven times for 92 yards, including the 65-yard fourth-quarter scamper.
“It was a great job by our young offensive line today,” Cahoy said. “This feels great because when I played quarterback last year, I didn’t always do as well as I wanted to. I’m just happy with the way we all played and I was able to make a couple of plays.”
Francl, who suffered an ankle injury early in the second quarter, rushed 13 times for 97 yards, including a pair of 5-yard TD runs. Douglass finished with four receptions for 73 yards and a pair of scores to go with his interception.
Linebacker Daylon Keolavone and cornerback Ace McKinnis led Grand Island’s defense. Keolavone recorded 11.5 tackles, including seven solo stops, and McKinnis had two interceptions — the first returned 50 yards to the Bearcats’ 5, setting up Francl’s first TD run.
Kearney’s Miko Maessner countered by rushing for 158 yards and a TD on 27 carries. Bearcats quarterback Colin Murray was 10 of 26 passing for 178 yards with two TDs and three interceptions. Wide receiver Seth Stroh had five receptions for 126 yards and two TDs for the Bearcats.
While Grand Island’s performance included a plethora of penalties and several special-teams mistakes, Tomlin said he’ll gladly take the win.
“I’m the type of guy who will ride you harder after a win than a loss,” Tomlin said. “We’ve got a lot of things to improve for sure, but we’ll enjoy this one all the way down Highway 30.”