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Game of the Week -- Northern Valley bounces back

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

ALMENA - Almena-Northern Valley High School senior running back Jordan Baird labeled the first five weeks "rough." He quickly reviewed the major moments. The Huskies lost to Alma, Neb., in Week 1, a defeat Baird called an "upset." After two wins, Northern Valley fell to rival Logan-Palco; Baird said the team played "terrible."

Last week, the Huskies lost senior lineman/linebacker Ian Vincent, a four-year starter, to a season-ending ankle injury in a district-opening loss to Beloit/St. John's-Tipton.

On Friday, Northern Valley rebounded with a strong 70-24 victory in a must-win district home game against Natoma. The game was called with 1 minute, 53 seconds left in the third quarter because of the 45-point mercy rule. Northern Valley, which expected to be a playoff contender in the preseason, moved to 3-3, 1-1 district. Natoma dropped to 4-2, 1-2.

"This hasn't been very fun until now," Baird said.

Even with the losses, the Huskies still featured an explosive offense. Special teams, run defense and lack of depth were the main issues. But Baird returned a 75-yard kickoff return, the Huskies had a safety off a bad Natoma punt snap and freshman Jarell Seals recovered two onside kicks.

"Big-time momentum," Baird said.

Northern Valley went up 20-0 early, but the Tigers closed to 20-16. Natoma senior Jackson Stull-Meiers hurt his knee on a 52-yard TD run from Baird that made the score 28-16. Natoma closed to 28-24 with 2 minutes, 24 seconds left before halftime.

Meiers tried to play the second half, but eventually suffered a concussion at the 8:44 mark of the third quarter and was carted off the field. Sophomore Joey Raat (knee) also was hurt early in the third quarter.

"I really thought there in the middle of the second quarter, we had them," Natoma coach Aaron Homburg said. "We were down four points, and they weren't touching us. We were running up the middle and I thought, 'OK, the physical ness has kicked in.' Kid gets hurt -- it doesn't matter who gets hurt -- you just kind of lose your focus."

Northern Valley rushed 43 times for 322 yards, including 15 carries and 142 yards and two scores from senior quarterback Hunter Chandler.

"This is the best game we have played in a long time," Chandler said.

Junior Brant Cox stepped in for Vincent at guard and linebacker and also long-snapped.

Despite giving up 83 pounds to Vincent, Cox blocked well and collected four tackles.

"It was difficult losing Ian," Cox said.

"But he is such a great player, and he is a good friend of mine, but I just felt like I needed to step up. Coach needed a guard, and I said I would do it."

Chandler completed 5 of 8 passes for 91 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. Junior Phillip Bryant, a bowling-ball-esque runner, finished with 11 carries for 84 yards and five total scores, four rushing. Defensively, Bryant had four sacks and a forced fumble.

"Whether it is defense or offense, he goes full speed on every single play," coach Chuck Fessenden said. "It just wears him out. He is always bent over and tired, but then as soon as the play starts, he goes full speed again. A lot of the officials think he is hurt or something, but he is not."

Baird enjoyed a big game on Husky Homecoming with 262 all-purpose yards (96 rushing) and three total scores. Many of his big plays came on sideline runs.

"You see that open block right there, you just have to cut it and you just have to turn your afterburners on as fast as you possibly can," Baird said. "You've just to got sprint."

Chandler finished with several highlight-reel plays, too. At 28-24, Chandler avoided several Tigers and tight-roped down the right sideline for a 29-yard score with 65 seconds left in the half.

"There is a guy coming from the left and I knew it was getting tight, and I wanted him to pull him off me a little bit, so I acted like I was going to pass, and then I just went," Chandler said.

Northern Valley tacked on a safety for a 38-24 lead with 30 seconds before halftime. On the ensuing possession, Raat had Chandler in the grasp for a sack, but Chandler managed to flick a pass to Bryant, who rushed 35 yards for a TD and a 44-24 lead at the break. Chandler accomplished a similar play earlier in the season and again later Friday on a pass to Baird.

"Me and (Bryant) have a lot of chemistry because he lived with me," Chandler said. "It seems like we know what each other is going to do sometimes. When I was going down, and I saw him, and he had that look in his eyes, and I was like, 'Here you go,' and then he just took off."

In the third quarter, Baird returned the opening kickoff and then Seals recovered back-to-back onside kicks. Seals had started slowly on junior varsity, but played well Monday and the coaches decided to give him more opportunity.

The special teams plays effectively sealed the win - and brought plenty of smiles from Chandler and Baird postgame in a much-needed victory.

"It's been frustrating," Baird said. "But we bounced back on this one."