This season has been all about turning things around for the Montezuma Braves.
It was no different on Friday night.
Montezuma, who has been one of the state’s best stories this year rebounding after winning just one game last season, rebounded from another quick start by fifth-ranked Pekin in the battle for the outright Class A, District 6 lead. After giving up two touchdowns in the first four minutes of action, the Braves buckled down and rallied for a 28-20 comeback win over the Panthers.
From one win last fall to a team with just one loss through seven games and an outright district lead, the story just keeps getting better this year for the Braves.
“You just never give up. That’s the key to turning things around,” Montezuma senior quarterback Zach Gibson said. “We may have come out flat, but we were ready to go. We never got down ourselves. We kept our heads up the whole time.”
While the Braves were prepared to battle 48 minutes, Pekin seemed to falter after a fast start. A difference in mentality, according to Panther head coach Joe Donovan, may have made the biggest difference in the contest.
“(Montezuma) played like a team with nothing to lose and we played like we did (have something to lose),” Donovan said. “We didn’t play good enough. We didn’t play winning football and that’s what happens when you’re not prepared. That falls on my shoulders, but maybe this will be the wake-up call that propels us through the rest of the year.”
The clash of district co-leaders was also a clash of an explosive Pekin offense against a Montezuma defense that had yet to yield a point in district play. That contest seemed to be a mismatch early as the Panthers needed less then two minutes to march down the field for a score as Quentin Garrels scored his 22nd touchdown on a six-yard run.
After forcing a three-and-out on Monteuzma’s opening drive, Garrels took his next carry in for his 23rd score. The Panther running back exploded into the secondary and dashed through the Braves’ defense for a 74-yard touchdown and two-point run to put Pekin up 14-0.
“It’s definitely not easy to stop that kid,” Montezuma head coach Keith Sietstra said of Garrels. “You talk about a special kind of player. That’s what he his.”
Sietstra talked about how his defense was able to respond after giving up their first 14 points since a 33-19 non-district week-two loss to BCLUW.
“When we gave up those first two touchdowns, it was one guy trying to make a tackle on a great player,” Sietstra said. “It’s all about 11 men going after the ball for us on defense. When we were able to do that, we started to have success.”
Montezuma’s defense was also bolstered by a much-needed response from their offense. After a penalty gave the Braves a short field to work with, Gibson and running back Mitch Stevens made Pekin pay with a 34-yard screen pass paying off in the Braves’ first touchdown.
“We just told each other to flush the start of the game. It was over,” Stevens said. “Once we got that short field and took advantage of it, we knew we could start getting the momentum going our way again.”
“We shot ourselves in the foot too many times with plays like that,” Donovan said of the Panther penalties. “The way we started, I thought we could have had 28 points in that first quarter.”
Instead, Pekin didn’t scored for almost three full quarters after opening a 14-0 lead. Meanwhile, Montezuma (6-1, 5-0) kept right on rolling and tied the game at 14-14 on a 41-yard touchdown by Stevens and took their first lead on the final play of the first half - an 11-yard touchdown pass from Gibson to Kane Barker.
Pekin (6-1, 4-1) got just three possessions in the second half and drove the ball into Montezuma territory each time. After being held on fourth down on the Braves’ 15 in the third quarter, Garrels scored his third touchdown of the night on a fourth-down three-yard run to pull the Panthers within 21-20.
A failed two-point conversion kept Montezuma on top. That lead would swell to eight when Stevens scored his third touchdown on his own three-yard run with 4:53 to go.
“Our line really started to dominate this game. They gave me some huge holes to run through,” Stevens said after rushing for 137 yards.
Down 28-20, Pekin drove all the way to the Montezuma 35 as Garrels’ 30th carry, for 268 yards, give the Panthers a first-down with under two minutes left. Montezuma’s defense made one last great play as Bryan Gregson picked off a Graham Wittrock pass, setting off a wild celebration on the opposite side of Tom Stone Field.
“You love seeing these guys be able to enjoy this kind of success,” Sietstra said. “I’m so proud of these guys for learning how to handle playing in environments like this and win against a team like Pekin.”
For Donovan, seeing his former team celebrate also brought back some familiar memories.
“That’s definitely what I remember from my time there,” Donovan said. “They’ve always had great fans and their kids came to play winning football. I’m not sure we did.”
Montezuma 28, No. 5 (A) Pekin 20
Montezuma 7 14 0 7 — 28
Pekin 14 0 0 6 — 20
Scoring By Quarters
Pekin — Quentin Garrels 6 yard run (kick failed), 10:09
Pekin — Garrels 74 yard run (Garrels run)
Monte — Mitch Stevens 34 yard pass from Zach Gibson (Dillon Wilhelm kick), 4:50
Monte — Stevens 41 yard run (Wilhelm kick), 5:58
Monte — Kane Barker 11 yard pass from Gibson (Jake Hasley kick), :01
Pekin — Garrels 3 yard run (run failed), 8:57
Monte — Stevens 3 yard run (Hasley kick), 4:53
First downs 18 17
Rushes-yards 45-238 44-311
Passing yards 126 33
Total Yards 364 344
Comp-Att-Int 9-16-0 6-15-1
Return Yards 6-76 8-24
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 0-0
Penalties-Yds 8-63 4-52
RUSHING — Mitch Stevens 21-137 yards, 2 td, Codi Townsend 10-63 yards, Zach Gibson 11-35 yards, Colton Maschmann 3-3 yards.
PASSING — Z. Gibson 9-16, 126 yards, 2 td.
RECEIVING — Kane Barker 4-66 yards, td, Stevens 1-34 yards, td, Mitch Gibson 3-26 yards, Townsend 1-0 yards.
INTERCEPTIONS — Bryan Gregson 1-8 yards.
TACKLES — Dillon Wilhelm 13, Baker 12, Gregson 7, Matthew Duggan 5, Z. Gibson 5, Maschmann 4, Townsend 4, Michael Duggan 3, M. Gibson 3, Niail Lyons 3, sack, Jake Hasley 2, Jay LeBahn, M. Stevens, Colton Tompkins.
RUSHING — Quentin Garrels 30-268 yards, 3 td, Petie Clubb 9-46 yards, Graham Wittrock 3-(-1) yards, Kolby Allsup 2-(-2) yards.
PASSING — G. Wittrock 6-15, 33 yards, int.
RECEIVING — Cade Millikin 2-25 yards, Clubb 3-10 yards, Garrels 1-(-2) yards.
TACKLES — Jared Bond 10, Thomas Slaney 9, Nazareth Rambo 7, 2 sacks, Clubb 6, Eric Adam 5, Eli Harper 5, Brody Long 5, Tanner Adam 3, Allsup 3, Trenton Conger 3, Zach Sloan 3, Seth Jensen 2, sack, Cory Loyd 2.