For the Kentucky Warriors, it’s sweeter the second time around.
For the second straight season, they are headed to the Northern Frontier Football League Championship Game after kicker Mark Dheel converted a 32-yard field goal with less than a second remaining to give the Warriors a 17-14 victory over the Columbus Gladiators.
After trailing 14-0 early in the game, the Gladiators made a furious comeback in the second half. A wide-receiver reverse pass and a two point conversion cut the Warrior lead to just six at 14-8 in the third quarter. The Kentucky offense could not muster a response.
“We just shot ourselves in the foot a lot,” said Warrior coach Jamie Rice of his team’s performance in the second half. “We had really done a good job in the last three or four weeks of eliminating those mental mistakes. They came back a little bit, and it was all at the wrong time.”
Late in the fourth quarter, after the Warriors offense stalled on third down yet again, the Gladiators seized an opportunity to tie the game.
With the defense tired and worn down after playing much of the second half, a simple out-route by Columbus receiver turned into a 46-yard touchdown after Warrior defensive backs failed to take effective pursuit angles. With just under three minutes remaining in the game, the Gladiators seemed poised to take the lead but Kentucky was able to block the extra point.
“A lot of teams don’t worry about placekicking, but it really helps us. It’s huge,” Rice said.
With the game now tied at 14, the Warriors were able to get a good kickoff return to their own 40-yard line. With no timeouts, they had just 2:29 to score and clinch a win.
Two quick runs brought the game to the two-minute warning. Then, it was Jonathon Schweickart’s turn to shine. Knowing the Gladiators would be dropping back in a prevent defense, Schweickart dropped back and scrambled to pick up 28 yards and put the Warriors on the Gladiator three-yard line.
After running the clock down to four seconds, kicker Mark Dheel came on for maybe the biggest attempt of his career: make it and move on to the championship game, or lose and head to sudden-death overtime.
If we didn’t have Dheel, we wouldn’t have been able to kick a ball there at the end. We would have one play, then it’s all or nothing,” Rice said. “It always seems to take pressure off of us.”
Schweickart led the way offensively for the Warriors, going 7-for-16 for 124 yards while tossing both of the Warriors touchdown passes. Outside of an interception on the Warriors’ first play from scrimmage, he was nearly perfect.
“It was maybe the best game he’s played. Maybe the best decision making game he’s had,” Rice said.
Jontez Jones had yet another solid game, touting the rock for 125 yards on 14 carries.
As has become a trend in the past few weeks, safety Snook Martin was the main man for the Warriors on defense. The Huntington, West Virginia native recorded 14 tackles, three sacks and an interception in Saturday’s game. Linebacker Nehemiah Phillips recorded 15 tackles, and former Portsmouth High standout Mason Jordan had two interceptions from his corner position.
“Defensively, those guys played awesome,” Rice said. “Those guys were extraordinary. (Martin) was doing his thing, that’s for sure.”
The Warriors’ opponent in the championship game, the Cincinnati Hawks, is a familiar one. A year ago, the Hawks ended the Warriors season in the NFFL Championship game, and they defeated them again this season 42-10. Determined for revenge, Rice and his assistants officially began preparations for the championship game on the ride home from Columbus on Saturday night. But, Rice has always had an inkling that he would see the Hawks again.
“We lost in the championship game (last year) and the next day, we started planning for this game right here,” he said. “We’re going to be prepared for those guys.”
The championship game will take place on Saturday at Woodward High School in Cincinnati. The winner of the game will likely be invited to participate in the AA National Championship in Florida later this year.
Alex Hider can be reached at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1931 or on Twitter @PDTSportsWriter