By Adam Tumino
With a narrow 13-12 win over Penney on Friday, the Milan football team was crowned district champions. The Wildcats got a key stop on a two-point attempt in the fourth quarter to hold on to their one-point lead, and then ran out the final eight minutes on the clock to clinch the win over the Hornets. It was the 11th win in a row for the Wildcats, who are now 11-1 on the season.
Milan head coach Mark Cole, in his second season in that role, said that his players’ continued commitment and desire to win has made it possible for the team to become one of the final four in the state.
“My young men are special, and I love them very much,” he said. “They believe in me and they believe in what we’re doing here. If I told them to go get me to get some conditioning in right now they’d go do it, because they believe it’s the key. “They deserve all the credit.”
The win over Penney on Friday was the fourth one-score game of the season for Milan, two of which have come in the last two weeks. Milan is 4-0 in one-score games this season. This was also the lowest-scoring game of the season for the Wildcats with just 25-combined points. The previous low was 35 points in Milan’s 28-7 win over Polo on Oct. 13.
Milan scored first on Friday when Ahmet Niasse ran into the endzone from 15-yards out, capping off a 41-yard drive that took just 53 seconds off the clock. The extra point was blocked after a low snap slowed down the play. Of the six possessions that started and ended in the first quarter, this was the only one that did not end in a three-and-out and a punt.
Milan punted away again to open the second quarter, and despite pinning Penney back at his own 15-yard line, the score was soon tied. The Hornets drove the 85 yards in just over six minutes before a three-yard touchdown run from Clay Finch put Penney on the board. The Milan defense managed to get a key stop on the two-point try to keep the score tied with just over five minutes left until halftime.
With Penney set to receive the second-half kickoff, Milan needed another score before the half. And score they did, orchestrating a 65-yard drive that culminated in a five-yard touchdown run from Carlos Cotto with 31 seconds left in the quarter. This time Jared Gonzales converted the extra point to give the Wildcats a 13-6 halftime lead.
Each team possessed the ball just three times in the second half, with the first four possessions ending in a Penney turnover on downs, a Milan turnover, and a Penney punt and a Milan punt. This gave the Hornets a chance to add a late score and possibly tie the score or take a fourth-quarter lead, and after a 16-yard touchdown run with 8:18 left in the game made the score 13-12, and vital two -point attempt was looming.
But for the second time in the game, Milan’s defense turned the Hornets away on a two-point attempt. Cole said that the team expected Penney to score touchdowns and that two-point attempts and extra points could prove to be some of the biggest plays of the game.
“We stressed all week long that they’re going to score, so just let the touchdown go and get the two-point conversion,” he said. “We did that twice tonight.”
But with 8:18 left on the clock, the Wildcats were not out of the woods yet. They began their ensuing drive on their own 40 yards line, and began to grind out the clock. Just over five minutes later, the Wildcats were facing a pivotal fourth-and-two when Penney jumped offsides, giving the Wildcats a first down and taking even more time off the clock. Several plays later, and with Penney out of time, a first down run from Cotto officially sealed the win.
Cole said that once that final first down call was made, what the team was on the verge of accomplishing finally set it.
“There’s a lot going on,” he said. “There’s things that you think about but you’re in the moment and you’re just trying to get a first down. Then as soon as you do it’s just like, ‘oh my gosh, this is really happening.’”
Milan’s defense was of course a large part of the win. The 12 points scored by Penney were their fourth-lowest in a game this season. Also, the Hornets had scored 204 total points over their last four games.
Milan was allowing an average of 15.3 points per game entering Friday’s game, but managed to hold a hot team below that mark on a night where it was necessary if the team wanted to win.
Cole said that he was concerned about Penney’s superior size in the trenches entering the game, but his defense kept finding ways to make plays.
“I saw a lot of heart. Just a ton, a ton of heart,” he said. “We knew it was going to be a battle in the trenches, and quite honestly I knew how good they were and I just worried that my boys were going to get outmanned. There were times where I thought this is where the cookie crumbles, and my tough kids just found a way.”
They will have to find a way once again in the state semifinal matchup against North Platte on Nov. 25. The Panthers are also 11-1 on the season, with their lone loss coming against an East Buchanan team that just lost to an unbeaten bowling Green squad in the District 2 Tournament. North Platte also won a close game against Penney this season, beating the Hornets 22-20 back on Sept. fifteen.
“We’ve got a North Platte team that’s playing really good football,” Cole said. “They’re super, super big. They’ve got some very talented guys in the backfield. We’ve got to try to handle something new. It’s uncharted waters. “We’ve got a break and no school, and the challenge is just getting ourselves ready to play a really good opponent.”
The game is scheduled to kick off at 1 pm from North Platte, which is located in Dearborn.