By SCOTT JACKSON Courier sports writer
---- — PEKIN — It was the rivalry game Sigourney-Keota head coach Jared Jensen called “a season-killer” for his team last year.
Walking off their own field last September after being run over at times and physically humbled in the end by Pekin in a 25-13 loss to the Panthers, the “Backyard Brawl” led the Savage Cobras looking as down as team could be just two weeks into the high school football season.
All Sigourney-Keota did from there was qualify for the postseason and nearly knock off a district champ on the road in the opening round of playoffs.
After last Friday’s “Skunk River” rematch with the Panthers, who knows what this season has in store for the Savage Cobras, who were anything but downtrodden when Friday’s game was over.
Not only did S-K get sweet revenge against Pekin, they did it in one of the most memorable ways imaginable. After driving all the way down to the Panthers’ 8-yard-line with four seconds to go, a potential 25-yard game-winning field goal attempt by Colby Kerkove turned into a mad dash to the end zone by sophomore back-up quarterback Blaine Gretter when the snapped bounced back into his hold.
Gretter didn’t hesitate, picking up the ball and making a run for the left corner with time having run out on a 21-21 tie. Gretter quick reflexes and quick sprint allowed him to get over the goal line to complete a play Sigourney-Keota fans won’t soon forget as the eight-yard touchdown run gave the Savage Cobras an unbelievable walk-off 27-21 win.
“When that ball hit the ground in front of me, I knew I had to take off,” Gretter said. “It just kind of worked out. I just took off and tried to get as far as I could at that point.”
“We always look for a roll out and look for a pass when we practice that play, but when I saw that corner pylon, I just knew that was where I had to get to.”
And for Jensen, there was no one else he would have trusted with the ball in his hands then the sophomore who hadn’t run, passed or caught a ball all night until those final four seconds.
“Blaine’s a playmaker,” Jensen said. “We don’t have him on the field a whole lot. We have on special teams. He’s only a sophomore, but he knew as soon as that snap was bad, we practice it all the time, to get up and get going.”
“I thought he was going to look for someone to throw it to, but as soon as he saw no one was there, his eyes were dead set on that end zone. He just made a play.”
It’s fitting that perhaps the most thrilling installment of the SK-Pekin rivalry would be decided in the end by a young man making a great play. This battle of great Keokuk County football programs was filled with so many great plays made at so many critical times.
So much so that, even from the losing locker room, the feeling wasn’t so much one of devastation. Instead, Pekin head coach Joe Donovan said his kids walked off the field feeling more frustrated about the final outcome.
“I think the guys were just mad about losing on a final play like that one,” Donovan said. “The guys had fought so hard to put themselves in position to be tied late in game. They got exactly what they thought they needed on that last play, a bad snap, then to have it turn out like that? I think the guys just kind of felt like “You got to be kidding me?”’
It was No. 8 (A) Pekin (1-1) that made the first play of the night on, well, the very first play. After missing the Panthers’ season opener at New London, senior running back Petie Clubb made his first play of 2013 one for the highlight reel by taking a backwards pass from quarterback Kolby Allsup and launching a ball downfield to a wide-open Christian Wittrock, who strolled in untouched for a 72-yard score putting Pekin up 6-0 just 15 seconds into the game.
“It was just a coverage break down on our part,” S-K senior Kolton Greiner said of Pekin’s opening-play score. “We had something similar happen to us at Central Lee last week on the second play of the game. We know we have a good defense, but this is our rival. One of our coaches worked in Keota this year and he’s been talking with former S-K players about how they remembered this game. All of them remember Pekin. It’s just a big rival and it’s huge.”
Perhaps it was that motiviation that fueled S-K’s ability to turn the rivalry around from last year’s effort to this year’s. The big-play score was all Pekin would get over the first three quarters as the Savage Cobra defense turned the tide, forcing a pair of second-quarter turnovers that allowed S-K to drive short distances for two straight touchdowns before halftime to take a 13-6 lead.
Two more turnovers in the second half, along with an 80-yard Nate Sieren run, set up quarterback Luke Lyle’s second scoring run and a two-point pass to Kevin Weber. Suddenly, S-K was up 21-6 after three quarters of play.
“We grew so much from week one to week two,” Jensen said. “We feel like we have a great group of senior leaders that really set the tone for our team. They make us feel and play like a really solid team. They showed some of that ability out there, especially on the defensive side of the ball.”
“Every time the ball was on the ground, we made a play on it,” Greiner, who scored S-K first touchdown on a three-yard run in the second quarter, added.
After finally making a stop following a fourth turnover, Pekin finally made its first long drive of the night as the fourth quarter began. Kolby Allsup led the Panthers down the field, converting a pair of key fourth downs including a 4th-and-goal pass to the end zone that was caught by Wittrock while taking contact to pull Pekin within 21-13.
After a three-and-out on defense, Pekin went 80 yards down the field making several more key plays. A Brody Long 4th-and-15 screen pass went 21 yards down the field and Allsup dashed in on a 15-yard quarterback keeper for a touchdown with 1:13 left before a dash to the corner of the other end zone for two points tied the game at 21-21.
“Even though we made some mistakes, that’s probably what I’ll take away the most from this game,” Donovan said. “Our kids never gave up and they were forced to have to come up with some big plays to come back in that fourth quarter.”
Pekin’s ensuing kickoff only made it to the SK 43 with hopes of keeping the ball out of Greiner’s hands deep. Greiner did plenty with the ball in hands after kickoff, following up a six yard run with a 38-yard pass to Weber to set up the dramatic final play.
“All week, everyone has been asking us how we’re going to be able to stop Pekin,” Greiner said. “No one seemed to bother to ask Pekin how they planned on stopping us.”
The victory sends S-K (2-0) into an incredibly tough Class 1A, District 6, starting with a tough test against seventh-ranked (1A) Wilton next Friday night at 7 p.m. Unlike last year, however, the Savage Cobras are soaring into district play with their heads held high.
“Last year, after the Pekin game, our team moral just seemed to hit rock bottom,” Jensen said. “Right now, there isn’t even a cap on our team moral right now. We’re just sky high right now, but we told them to celebrate this until Monday because we have another victim this Friday in Wilton to prepare for.”
For one S-K player, it will probably be a lot harder to simply forget about this past week and this one win over Pekin.
“It feels great. This has probably been the hardest working week of practice we’ve had all season,” Gretter said. “This is probably the number one moment for me on the football field. I didn’t even realize how to react after I crossed the goal line. It just happened so fast, but it felt so great.”
Pekin (1-1) opens Class A, District 6 play this Friday at Lynnville-Sully. The Panthers beat the Hawks last year 34-27, scoring the winning touchdown in the final seconds of regulation.
“I told the guys you can either let this loss bring you down, or you can use it to motivate us going forward,” Donovan said. “Hopefully, our guys will use it to do the latter.”
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