ELROY — Any game of football truly can become a war of attrition.
A field position battle hinging on every yard, with the smallest of margins the difference between the ecstasy of victory and agony of defeat.
The Royall and Cashton football teams truly took to the battlefield on Friday night. With matching 4-0 records, a share of the Scenic Bluffs Conference lead was on the line, neither the Panthers nor Eagles were ready to give up their share of the league lead.
That game of inches truly came to a head late in the fourth quarter, one that ultimately went Cashton’s way as it grinded out a 7-6 victory over Royall at Gerard Field in Elroy. Junior Lincoln Klinge scored the game-winning touchdown for the Eagles, whose defense stuffed a late game-winning two-point conversion try by the Panthers to hand them their first defeat of the season.
“We have (beaten them), we just haven’t been a very good football program in the last six years,” Cashton coach Jered Hemmersbach of the Eagles’ second straight one-point win over the Panthers.
“This is the first time since I’ve been coaching that, at this point in the season, we’ve been 5-0. We’re just trying to build a program and enjoying the energy it brings. It’s amazing, just proud of the kids and this is what it’s all about.”
What it was all about from opening kickoff to finish was mainly defense as neither team allowed the other to find the endzone until the fourth quarter. The second of those scores came from the Panthers with just under three minutes left to play.
After forcing a fumble deep in their own territory with the Eagles (5-0 Scenic Bluffs) attempting to salt the game away, Royall needed just two plays to hit paydirt as Zephyr Turner weaved his way 69 yards to the house with 2:09 remaining to pull within 7-6.
Rather than kick the extra point for the tie, the Panthers (4-1) opted to attempt a potential game-winning two-point try. Again the ball went to Turner, but the senior running back was held back just inches shy of the goal line as the Eagles preserved the one-point advantage.
“They didn’t stop; they kept bringing it and it showed. We got the ball back, marched down and scored, and it just didn’t go our way tonight,” Royall coach Kole Huth said. “It’s easy to live in the past and say it was good and whatnot; one guy puts his hands up and says it’s good, the other guy says it’s not good. I’m not going to dwell on that, it is what it is and it’s behind us, I’m just really proud of the boys.”
With plenty of time still remaining, the Panthers attempted an onside kick but Cashton freshman Brett Hemmersbach smothered the bouncing ball at the Eagles 45-yard line. From there, Cashton put things away as sophomore quarterback Jacob Huntzicker powered his way for four yards on third-and-2 with just over a minute to go to put the game on ice.
Huntzicker also provided the game-winning score as he connected with Klinge on a 6-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-goal with 8:29 left to play. Rather than go for two, the Eagles sent out Brady Hemmersbach to attempt the PAT, and cool as you like, the freshman fired home the extra point for a 7-0 cushion.
“We talk about it all the time,” Jered Hemmersbach said. “He’s a freshman and I’m like ‘It’s so important to kick these PATs, you never know when it’s going to be a game winner.’ Two of the five games now have been 7-6 games, so it’s just clutch.”
The game-winning pitch-and-catch helped atone for a 40-yard stroke from Huntzicker to Klinge earlier in the drive that was negated by a Cashton block in the back penalty. The Eagles also got some key rushing from Colin O’Neil during the drive as the sophomore running back ripped off a key 15-yard scamper to help set up the Eagles score.
“That was huge. It gave our line so much confidence, gave the whole team confidence and we just built off of that,” O’Neil said. “We build off each other, we feed off each other; fourth-quarter comeback or fourth-quarter hold, we’re tough in the end.”
O’Neil nearly helped the Eagles put things away as he rattled off a 50-yard run from the Cashton 20-yard line before the Panthers forced their fourth takeaway of the game. While Royall was able to cash in on it final turnover, the Panthers struggled to convert on their first three takeaways.
The Panthers punted after each of their first two takeaways and turned the ball over on downs to help start what proved to be the game-winning drive.
“That was a big battle a lot of night, trying to keep the ball on their side and keep it towards the endzone we’re trying to score in. That’s huge and that last turnover, it seemed like we finally got that last little bit of burst,” Huth said.
“It was gut check time and they rose to the occasion. IT all comes down to a two-point conversion, which is good football; that’s the way you want it. We can all sit, gripe and moan about whether it was good or not, but the scoreboard still says 6-7 and nobody’s going to change that.”
Despite coming out on the short end, Huth sees the defeat as a good learning moment for the Panthers, who were without six players due to COVID-19 related issues. Chief among those was starting right guard and middle linebacker Gabe Keenan, who was replaced on the offensive line by Turner before the Panthers leading rusher made his return to the backfield.
Given all of those moving pieces, Huth praised the Panthers’ effort and is confident the team will be back at full strength ahead of Royall’s clash with reigning SBC champion Bangor.
“I think in a couple of weeks, we hopefully we get our full team back, and when we’re grooving and healthy, we look pretty good,” he said. “I think we look pretty sharp, not saying we didn’t look sharp tonight, it was just a different team.”
Speaking of the Cardinals, the Eagles will get their shot at the league’s premier team next week. It’s a challenge Jered Hemmersbach knows the group is up for.
“They’re the cream of the crop and they’re good. I mean, they’re great and they’ve been that way for 10 years,” he said. “We just want to play our best football against them and see what happens, but we’re just going to enjoy this.”
Follow Sean Davis on Twitter @SDavis_PDR or contact him at 608-745-3512.